Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2010

He wasn’t even a real person, but the classic fictional character Atticus Finch, created 50 years ago, has endured as an inspirational figure for generations of lawyers everywhere.

As the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel about a defense attorney defending a black man against the charge of rape of a white woman in the 1930s, Finch is viewed as a hero by many lawyers, who hold him up as an idealistic symbol of what the profession and the justice system should aspire to be. Published June 11, 1960, the book never has been out of print, though it has been frequently banned, and was chosen “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll of librarians in 1999.

Mockingbird exudes a mystique that has been enhanced by its author, Harper Lee. Like fellow Southern writer Margaret Mitchell, she won a Pulitzer Prize for a famous novel, but then never published another one during her life (at least so far, for Lee). Her reclusive nature also adds to the mix, and contributes to her image as a south-of-the-Mason Dixon Line counterpart to J.D. Salinger.

In Lee’s home state of Alabama, a monument erected by the Alabama State Bar on the square in her hometown of Monroeville is dedicated to “Atticus Finch: Lawyer-Hero.” Moreover, a facet of the Alabama Law Foundation is the Atticus Finch Foundation. Its primary goal is “to make access to justice a reality for all Alabama citizens.”

The influence on the legal profession of the book, as well as the Academy Award-winning film version of Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck, prompted the Bulletin to ask several Oregon attorneys and judges how the story and the character influenced them, and whether the values Finch represents affect them today.

Further, we also invited participants to describe when they first remember reading, seeing or hearing of the story; whether they were influenced by any comparable figures in literature or history; and whether they believe the story’s legacy endures, or is a product of a bygone time. Here are their stories, in their own words.

Reaching for Our Best
Don A. Dickey, a Marion County circuit court judge in Salem, says that the way he sees Mockingbird has altered over time. “I do believe that one’s view of Atticus changes as we become responsible for the law ourselves,” he says. “At first reading, I think I felt that Atticus was somewhat of a windmill fighter — that his work was not really appreciated by some folks, so how could his decision to take the case work out to benefit him? Obviously, that was not the point.” He adds: “At some point the integrity of the process has to be more important than the results of any one case. Indeed, to quote a Jackson Browne song, ‘Nothing survives, but the way we live our lives.’ ”

Atticus Finch is the same man at home as in the courtroom. He is even-handed and respectful with his children, and stern but polite as he effectively establishes Bob Ewell as a liar.

He believes that his client is innocent, and that the justice system should be colorblind. Although he doesn’t like criminal law, he takes on the defense of a poor black man accused of the rape of a white woman, knowing that in the current atmosphere, he will lose. Nothing prevents him from giving the case less than his best efforts. He ignores the obvious risks the case causes him, including loss of social and professional reputation and veiled threats on his life. His resistance to the prejudices of the community goes well beyond the overwhelming racial prejudice.

Finch exhibits professionalism in a difficult circumstance that real lawyers seldom face, and to a level they can rarely attain; but he gives us a standard of excellence that keeps us humble, and at the same time reaching for our best.

A Source of Inspiration — and Quotes
A bookworm since childhood, Oregon City criminal defense attorney John Henry Hingson III purchased the original paperback copy of the novel, but emphasizes that he never was assigned the book in school. Hingson knows why: He was born in Alabama, the setting of the novel, where its release created controversy and criticism of the author. Hingson still has that copy of Mockingbird. “I keep it here in my law office for inspiration, and sometimes I even quote it,” he says. That book, as well as Irving Stone’s biography of Clarence Darrow, set Hingson on his path.

I tried to get Harper Lee to speak at a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers annual meeting a few years ago. This was for the 50-year anniversary of the NACDL. She inspired many of us to become criminal defense lawyers, including me. At times consciously, and at times unconsciously, her book was a huge influence on my going to law school. I wanted to make a difference.

I spoke to some of the author’s close Alabama friends, but she eschews public appearances and is very shy. I even tried to get a convicted murderer’s family in Alabama to help woo her out of obscurity. No luck.

Mike Papantonio, a lawyer-author, wrote a book about Finch — an inspirational tome. He also wrote one about Darrow, the journeyman, lessons for the modern lawyer. Fantastic books that help buoy the spirits of a criminal defense lawyer when down in the dumps. These are lessons you can learn from the two of them to try to help people be a part of the community. Darrow was a hero of mine. He was an intellectual before he became a lawyer.

Darrow — a real guy — and Finch — a fictional guy based on real people in Alabama — are the reasons I am a criminal defense lawyer. About eight years before my mom died, she gave me a thing to hang on the wall in my office. A quote from Darrow, it reads: “To be an effective criminal defense counsel, an attorney must be prepared to be demanding, outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade, and a hated, isolated and lonely person — few love a spokesman for the despised and the damned.” My mom understood me. It still hangs on my wall.

Relevant for Decades to Come
Kevin W. Luby, of the Luby Law Firm in Tigard, admires Atticus Finch “because he stood up to political and racial pressures to do what was right,” he says. “Even though Finch is a fictional character, I have observed similar courage at all different levels in our judicial system and throughout the community.”

I first read Mockingbird in high school, and again when my kids read it. The change in my vantage point between the readings was amazing. As a high schooler, I was impressed by Finch’s bravery but, of course, mostly focused on Scout and Boo. As an attorney, however, I seemed to focus on Atticus Finch and how he balanced his controversial representation of Tom Robinson with his obligations as a father.

That balancing act seems to be common amongst many lawyers that I have dealt with. How does one balance the joy and obligations of parenthood with one’s innate need to pursue justice and to help the needy? The fact that Atticus Finch’s character was not fully fleshed out allows the reader to insert himself or herself into that character and to measure whether or not we believe we would have the same courage of conviction that he displayed.

I am confident that To Kill a Mockingbird will retain its relevance for decades to come. Even the younger generations are familiar with racism, although perhaps not the exact type experienced in the book. More importantly, Atticus Finch will continue to represent what so many of us strive to be.

A Powerful Message of How the Law Can Be Used
At the time of this writing, Kathleen E. Payne, of the Oregon Department of Justice, was on leave, working as a volunteer for the International Senior Lawyers Project in Cambodia with a small nongovernmental organization of lawyers representing women and children. There, she was reminded of the international influence Atticus Finch exerts.

Within the legal profession, there are many admirable attorneys and judges, but my decision to become a lawyer was first influenced by the fictional lawyer in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To those of us who did not grow up in a family of lawyers or who didn’t know lawyers, the novel was inspiring. The idea that through the legal system, a member of the same community that falsely accused a man could present evidence and argument to free that same man was wonderful. The protagonist’s belief in the system, despite the violence of the characters and the prejudice of the times, made the practice of law seem truly admirable.

The Cambodian legal system was destroyed under the Khmer Rouge and is only just emerging after the U.N. protectorate. It is modeled on the French civil law system and renowned for corruption, a poorly trained judiciary, and a lack of independence from the government. It is indeed difficult not to be overwhelmed by what seems to an outsider like myself to be the impossible task to bring justice to the victims of child and labor trafficking and sexual assault.

When the young lawyers here told me about the constraints on their ability to practice law, several told me that despite all that they were going to “Atticus Finch.” It took me a minute to understand what they were saying; at first I thought they were talking about some Khmer legal term. I don’t think any of them had seen the movie, and lawyer training here is much different than the United States, but they had read the book in school and understood the powerful message of how the law can be used, even though the book does not end with legal success. And so they work on here trying to ensure the rule of law.

Model of Integrity
Medford attorney Douglas M. McGeary, says that as a youth, he admired the character Finch, and still does.

My first memory of To Kill a Mockingbird was as a 6-year-old in the back seat of the family station wagon on a hot Medford night at the Valley Drive-in movie theater. I was terrified by the scene as Jem looked out his own car window to see evil Mr. Ewell appear out of the darkness to approach Tom Robinson’s family and Atticus.

Mr. Finch had to face the popular will of his community in the Deep South during the 1930s. He had to do what was right according to the law without regard for race, despite the overriding prejudice of his community. Atticus Finch is a model of integrity and adherence to judicial rule by which any judge should abide when faced with making the most difficult of unpopular decisions.

An actual figure in history I admired when growing up was (boxer) Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali. Again, for his fight against what was expected of him in order to do what he felt was right.

I believe the Mockingbird story will endure, just as Mark Twain’s story of Huck Finn will endure. At its essence, doing what is right is the nature of the human struggle for a thinking society. I am proud to be in a profession that aspires to advance that struggle.

An Inspiration for Future Lawyers
Locke A. Williams is presiding circuit court judge of the Benton County Circuit Court in Corvallis.

I admire the fictional character Atticus Finch, for his profound sense of morality and justice, and for his strongly held convictions, empathy and wisdom.

I think the legacy will endure. Although the novel was written during the Civil Rights era, Atticus Finch is timeless. He is one of the most significant characters in American literature. He represents the noblest ideals of justice, and is a character to which people can easily relate. I think the character inspires in all of us a desire to do what is just and right even when doing so may place ourselves or our loved ones in peril. I would like to think that Atticus Finch will continue to instill in people a powerful sense of justice and inspire many future generations of young readers to study to become lawyers.

I really do think that this character stands out as one of the greatest characters in American literature and film. As an aside, I also draw similar inspiration from Abraham Lincoln.

The Legacy Is All Around Us
Nancy E. Cook is deputy public defender with Public Defender of Marion County in Salem.

I very much admire Atticus Finch. He was a small-town lawyer who was a widower raising two children. He represented his client to the best of his ability, even though he risked his own personal safety and reputation in the community. He did the right thing no matter how badly he was treated for doing so.

He was a wonderful role model as a father. In a scene where he has to shoot a rabid dog, his children had previously thought he was a coward and afraid to shoot a gun, and yet they found out he was a renowned marksmen but had given up shooting to raise his children. He was a single father who taught his children by example the values of integrity, honor, courage, compassion, wisdom, respect, patience, fortitude and good judgment. He was not only an excellent lawyer, but an excellent human being.

My memory of the first time I can recall knowing about this story was seeing the movie. I was probably about in middle school. I thought Atticus was strong and patient, but I think at that time, I was more intrigued by Boo Radley. Later on reading it in school and seeing the movie several more times on TV, I was amazed at how really strong Atticus was. It was when I became a parent myself that I was really impressed with him as a father.

As to other figures in history or literature, I feel strongly that Abraham Lincoln was put in the position of president at that very time in history by God or The Force or whatever, to mend our wounds and help our country heal. I feel a bit like that with Gerald Ford, but on a less dramatic scale.

Yes, the legacy will endure. It is not a product of a bygone time. But, it is often unnoticed. There are Atticus-like heroes among us daily:

Think of all the grandparents who step up to raise their grandchildren when the parents’ addictions and illnesses prevent them from providing for the safety and security of the children. Think of the teachers who make a difference in the direction of a child’s life. Think of the soldiers who volunteer for us. And, of course, think of the lawyers who daily take up unpopular cases and causes for much less money than they could be making, to stand up as Atticus did for what’s right.

The legacy is all around us. We just need to notice and appreciate.

Doing the Right Thing Against Impossible Odds
Angel Lopez, a former president of the Oregon State Bar, was a criminal defense attorney in Portland for many years, and now is a Multnomah County circuit court judge.

Way back in the 1960s, I was an eighth-grader at Ralph Bunch Junior High School in Compton, Calif. We had a wonderful English teacher, Priscilla Schilling. Even though she didn’t call it that, it was a “Great Books” class. Three of the books we read during the year were Of Mice and Men, Great Expectations and To Kill a Mockingbird. These books all spoke to me and, to this date, have a profound impact on my world view concerning fairness, justice and chaos, and how they can all operate on the same playground of humanity on any given day.

Regarding To Kill a Mockingbird, I was struck with the character of both Atticus Finch and the trial judge. Both wanted to do the right thing against impossible odds. Mr. Finch was unassuming, yet powerful and respected. The scene where he had total control in protecting his neighbors by shooting the rabid dog remains in stark contrast with his courtroom performance, where he executes a perfect defense, only to have his client convicted by the community mores of the time in which they were all trapped.

I re-read Mockingbird as a college student, but did not realize its impact on my life until much later. In the 1980s, I became a criminal defense attorney. Without my knowing it, Mockingbird whispered to me that I needed to act with honor, sincerity and conviction to best be the lawyer who aspired to represent unpopular people and unpopular causes. This was the kind of lawyer I wanted to be; the type of reputation I wanted to have. I realize, in the retelling, the inspiration was born from my early introduction to Mr. Finch.

When my sons, both grown now, were children, I rented and watched with them the movie version of the book. At the end of the movie, my older son turned to me with wide-eyed admiration and said, “Dad, that movie’s about you.” Not to be outdone, my younger son chirped in, “So, when are they going to kill the mockingbird?”

Long live Atticus Finch!

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Bulletin. 

© 2010 Cliff Collins

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