Superhero lawyers: Have they all gone back to Krypton?

Posted on 04-24-2016 by
Tags: Top Stories

Superman – one of our great comic book heroes – turned 78 last week. Superman’s greatness as an icon is set in stone. For other comic book heroes – I’m looking at you Plastic Man / Ant Man – greatness is iffy.  

It’s the same for lawyers. Many good lawyers do heroic work, but on a higher level, there are superhero lawyers, those who change the world and are long remembered for it. These are our legal legends, people like Clarence Darrow, Thurgood Marshall, Bella Abzug and Robert Kennedy.

But after 1968 (RFK’s assassination), the legends seem to thin out. In my time, I’m hard pressed to dole out legend-status … you know, the lawyer who inspires with a legal fight, who ushers in a culture shift, who speaks in truisms.

Of course, legends often need the lens of time, i.e., proof by the ages. As the late actor Christopher Lee said:

To be a legend, you've either got to be dead or excessively old!

This is more so in the law, where legal battles can be politically divisive and legal judgments upset social norms. Legal battles rally rival teams, each pointing fingers at the other, each trumpeting Twain’s old barb:

Principles is another name for prejudices.

Like sports, the law is adversarial. Unlike sports, legal wins and losses are sweeping, enduring, and impactful to rights, beliefs, majorities, minorities, etc. To be on the winning side incurs the wrath of many Americans. To be on the losing side (equally) incurs the wrath of many Americans. Stuck in the middle, often for the long, long haul, are the judges and the lawyers.

Unable to see the future, tomorrow’s legal legends depend on today’s guesswork. But as demonstrated by the denigration vs. celebration of the late Justice Scalia, early guesses suffer from still-raw feelings and dogmatic differences.

Still, we can guess, tempered by the fact that a legal “legend” isn’t necessarily everyone’s Superman. A legend, without imperfections, controversies and enemies, is merely a myth. As Robert Evans so artfully noted:

There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.

Or more simply put:

The very ink in which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

- Mark Twain

12 Legal Legend Nominees

  1. Sandra Day O'Connor: Justice O’Connor became the 1st woman to serve as a justice in the Supreme Court’s 191-year history. She was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and received unanimous approval from the U.S. Senate. She was the swing vote in Bush v. Gore, which effectively named George W. Bush our 43rd president.
  2. Eric Holder: Holder became the 1st African-American attorney general of the United States, serving under President Barack Obama. Before that, he became the highest-ranking African-American law enforcement official in U.S. history when he was confirmed as deputy attorney general. Holder was also the 1st African-American to serve as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
  3. Janice Rogers Brown: The 1st African-American woman to serve on the California Supreme Court and currently a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Known for being an entertaining writer (à la Justice Scalia), Brown, in her dissent, once described the majority as “a court with an overactive lawmaking gland.”
  4. Ronald Dworkin: Legal philosopher/ professor who argued that morality is the benchmark of constitutional interpretation, that the law needs to be based not only on formal rules but also moral principles. Studied law at both Oxford and Harvard and clerked for the famous Judge Learned Hand. Dworkin is widely regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of law of the post-war era.
  5. Sonia Sotomayor: Justice Sotomayor became the1st Latina Supreme Court justice in U.S. history. She’s been dubbed the “people’s justice” because of her extrajudicial appearances at non-academic events, even throwing out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game. President Obama said she “saved baseball” with her district court decision that helped end the baseball strike of 1994-1995.
  6. Alan Page: Page, an NFL football player and Hall of Famer, became the 1st African-American to be elected to an open seat as an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. In order to run for election, Page had to first win a Minnesota Supreme Court battle (Page v. Carlson) after the governor extended a sitting justice’s term. Page is also the founder of The Page Education Foundation, which assists minority youth with post-secondary education.
  7. Janet Reno: The 1st woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, serving under President Bill Clinton. Reno dared to go after software giant Microsoft, claiming the company had used its "monopoly power" to get a "choke hold" on Internet browser software. Reno was also praised for her role in investigating the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber.
  8. Antonin Scalia: Justice Scalia championed originalism and was renowned for his sarcasm and wit. Wrote the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller –  a 2nd Amendment case that rejected the “absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.” Once famously said: “What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you'd like it to mean?”
  9. Arthur L. Alarcon: The 1st Latino appointed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, nominated by President Jimmy Carter. Alarcon presided over many noteworthy cases, including that of Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy. Also served in the Army during World War II, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Alarcon wisely advised lawyers that “[t]he longer you make your brief, the more likely that most of the pre-argument analysis of your case will be turned over to a law clerk who just finished the bar exam.”
  10. Gloria Allred: Civil rights lawyer billed as the “most famous woman attorney practicing law in the nation today.” Allred has played a part in numerous high-profile cases … cases involving O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, as well as one of the earliest sexual abuse suits against the Catholic Church. Allred received the National Trial Lawyers’ Lifetime Achievement Award for combating injustices and winning new rights for women and minorities.
  11. Mary Jo White: Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who also became the 1st female United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. White earned convictions against the terrorists responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the bombings of American embassies in Africa. White has also served as a director of The NASDAQ Stock Exchange and on its executive, audit, and policy committees.
  12. Rudolph Giuliani: Two term mayor of New York City, Giuliani, at age 29, was appointed the attorney in charge of police corruption cases resulting from the Knapp Commission. Giuliani later served as President Reagan's Associate Attorney General and was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. With 4,152 convictions (against only 25 reversals), Giuliani was one of the most effective U.S. Attorneys in history.

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