Law and Conversation

September 20, 2010

Read This: Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak”

I don’t know whether “Speak,” the YA novel by acclaimed and award-winning writer Laurie Halse Anderson that eloquently conveys a high school girl’s pain over a rape and the ensuing meanness and social ostracism from her peers, will become a classic.  But, just in time for Banned Books Week, someone’s trying to ban it from a school library, which puts “Speak” in the excellent company of  many acknowledged classics that are now required reading in many, if not most, schools.

I had to run out to the library yesterday to find a copy of “Speak” after I saw the outrage on the part of Halse Anderson, as well as many readers and writers whom I follow on Twitter, over a Missouri management professor’s screed condemning the book as containing “soft pornography” because it depicts–in far from graphic terms–the girl’s rape by a high school boy. 

The  term “pornography” doesn’t have a legal definition.  Some of my dictionaries define it as “writing about prostitutes,” “obscene or licentious writing,” or “obscene literature having little or no artistic merit.”  For courts, the term that counts is “obscenity,” which the courts have struggled to define over the years.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart achieved immortality with his attempt, “I know it when I see it,” in his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).  Nine years later, in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), the court adopted a three-part test for finding that a work is obscene:  “(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Many readers and writers who have tweeted and blogged about the professor’s article are having a hard time trying to figure out how any portion of “Speak” could possibly satisfy a dictionary definition of “pornography,” let alone any part of the court’s definition of obscenity.  Blog posts with more details about the book and the proposed ban are available here, here, and here, among many other places. 

Acknowledged classics that have been the subject of similar banning attempts include Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” George Orwell’s “1984,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.  Sherman Alexie’s terrific “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction in 2007, has also been the subject of banning attempts. You can follow Laurie Halse Anderson on Twitter here.

Have you read “Speak?”  What banned books do you like?

September 17, 2010

Judges and courts in nonfiction

Filed under: Books and writing,judiciary,Law — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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With the news about Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald’s retirement, Illinois appellate justice Mary Jane Theis’s appointment to the Illinois supreme court as his replacement, and the election of Justice Thomas Kilbride as new chief justice, it’s been hard to keep up with the court this week.

In addition to registering for the court’s own e-mail service for announcements and press releases or following the court’s Twitter account, though, there’s another good way to keep up with the judiciary in Illinois:  bookmark Chicago lawyer Jack Leyhane’s blog, “For What It’s Worth,” ” where he posts timely news and analysis of Illinois judges and courts, or add it to your RSS reader.   

I thanked Leyhane yesterday for adding this blog to his blogroll.  As I noted, he and a number of others provided me with some great commentary for two of my three articles on becoming a judge in the latest issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.  I’m delighted to note that my articles will be included in the materials for a CLE symposium on judicial selection that ISBA is putting on next month.

The announcement of Chief Justice Fitzgerald’s retirement appeared to take everyone by surprise.  I’ve interviewed the justice twice, for a profile on his becoming the chief two years ago and in July, along with three of his fellow justices, for my current lead article.  I concluded the latter with my favorite quote from him, a response to a question I asked him about lawyers who doubt their abilities to be good judges:  “Good for you.  You should have self-doubt.  I hope you can hang onto it, for it’s a worthwhile thing to have.”  In his interview, Justice Fitzgerald revealed himself to be impeccably courteous and courtly–exactly as one would hope and expect someone at the top of the legal profession to be.

For more about the judiciary, check out the archives of the (sadly) no longer active “Underneath Their Robes” blog, written by the inimitable and irrepressible David Lat as his alter ego, Article III Groupie.  Lat, who now oversees the deliciously snarky “Above The Law” blog, was unmasked, with his cooperation, in the November 21, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, by lawyer and writer Jeffrey Toobin.

Toobin, in turn, published “The Nine:  Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court” in 2007.  As he was gathering material for his book, Toobin landed interviews with not only some of the justices themselves but also many present and former law clerks.  Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s “The Brethren” laid the groundwork for Toobin’s and others’ books about the inner workings of the court, of course.  Further back in time, Malvina Shanklin Harlan’s memoir, “Some Memories of a Long Life,” recounting stories of her 54-year marriage to 19th century Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, is available in hardcover now that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has edited it.  The Library of Congress holds that manuscript and the archives of various supreme court justices.

For books about Illinois’s own courts, check out “Courtroom 302:  A  Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse” by Chicago journalist Steve Bogira, “Rule 53:  Capturing Hippies, Spies, Politicians, and Murderers in an American Courtroom,” by courtroom sketch artist Andy Austin, and “Greylord:  Justice, Chicago Style,” by journalists James Tuohy and Rob Warden.

What other nonfiction books and websites about courts have you enjoyed?

September 16, 2010

Thursday Thanks!

Filed under: judiciary,Law — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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Today I’d like to thank Chicago lawyer Jack Leyhane, who blogs at “For What It’s Worth,” for adding this blog to his blogroll.  Leyhane’s blog features current, in-depth news and analysis on the process of becoming a judge in Illinois that, unfortunately, you won’t find much of in the mainstream media.  In this election season, Leyhane’s timely posts on such breaking news as the contested election for chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, the appointment of Illinois appellate justice Mary Jane Theis to replace retiring Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald of the Illinois Supreme Court, and bar association ratings for judicial candidates deserve particular attention.

Leyhane and several others, including two federal district court judges and no fewer than four of the seven sitting justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, provided me with thoughtful, realistic, and specific commentary on how lawyers can best position themselves to become judges in this state for three articles, including the lead article, in the current (September 2010) issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.  Leyhane, who has run twice for judge in Cook County, explained to me in detail what a lawyer has to do to prepare for a run for office.  It’s time-consuming, tiring, unglamorous, and expensive–but the potential rewards are enormous.  I loved hearing and writing about his and my other sources’ stories.

I have some more posts in the works thanking others who have linked to this blog and referenced my work.  If you’ve linked to this site and/or included it on your own blogroll, or otherwise referenced my work, please let me know.  And please tune in tomorrow for some more thoughts on recent judicial developments in Illinois and some great reading to supplement the MSM and Leyhane’s fine blog.

September 15, 2010

The Schumanns and the law

Filed under: biography,composers,Law,mental health,Music,piano — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:39 am
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Monday’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor reminds us that Clara Wieck Schumann was born on that day, September 13, 1819.  Clara vied with Franz Liszt for the title of preeminent concert pianist of the 19th century, though her role as wife of composer Robert Schumann and mother of their eight children required her to cut back on performing for a time as well as to leave off composing.

Legal issues permeated the Schumanns’ lives.  To marry, they had to file a lawsuit, for Clara’s controlling and grasping father/teacher/agent/producer opposed their relationship.  After their marriage, Clara writes in her diary and correspondence of further legal disputes with her father over her earnings and property.  And Clara eventually had to commit Robert to an institution because of his insanity, the result of his syphilis.

The Schumanns’ lives show that truth is far stranger and more complex than fiction!  For more, you can read “The Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann” as well as your choice of several juicy biographies.

Who are your favorite musicians?  For enthralling reading, what biographies do you recommend?

September 13, 2010

Read This: Pat’s Story of Kindness

Filed under: Books and writing,Read This! — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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Who would you rather spend time with—someone who’s right, or someone who’s kind? 

Being right and being kind aren’t mutually exclusive, of course.  But through school and career, it’s easy to focus on being the best you can be in your classes and at your job and, sometimes, to overlook or minimize being kind.  It’s also easy to zero in on being right, especially if you’re in a highly competitive field, such as litigation.  You can rationalize unkindness when you’re surrounded by others who encourage it, when you feel that someone isn’t treating you well, or when you think someone is wrong and isn’t recognizing your (or your client’s) essential Rightness.

I have some great friends who have taught me about the value of kindness.  Pat Downs is one of those friends. 

Pat’s a high school friend who’s now a principal librarian for the San Diego County public library.  Last year, she told the story of her life, including some profound thoughts on reading, storytelling, and kindness, in a speech to college-bound foster youths.  I’m delighted that she’s allowing me to post an edited version here.

Pat’s Story

Those of you who know me understand even through the hardships, I’ve had a pretty charmed journey.  My favorite sentiment, from Jean Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country,” remains, “God has put his hand on me.”  And so He has.  This is part of my attempt to give back.

‘I was asked to speak today because like you, I am a foster kid. I was born to illiterate parents, one of 10 children, in the hollers of Kentucky, just a mile from where Abraham Lincoln was born. 

‘When I was four, my family moved to Illinois.  My father was a sharecropper, worked other people’s land for a part of the harvest and very little wage. We were desperately poor.

‘But much worse than the poverty was the fact that my parents abused us in every way imaginable.  My father was ultimately imprisoned.  My mother was probably spared prosecution because she was never quite right mentally.

‘My siblings and I were eventually all displaced and separated.  For some years I lived in what was called a children’s home.  When I was sixteen, I became the first foster child in my county.  The president of the children’s home wanted to promote fostering—something that was just not done in our rural community.  So he basically interviewed dozens of kids from the home and decided on me.  Fortunately, I didn’t know why I was chosen.  He told me many years later that he thought I would be a good role model for his four younger children.

‘I don’t know about that, but I did go on to get a great education.  And because of that great education, I have had a wonderful, fulfilling career.

‘People have sometimes asked me who my mentors were, who my role models were.  I have a hard time pinpointing consistent role models; maybe you do, too.  It’s kind of the transient nature of the foster system.  But I like to recall something I shared with the first group of volunteers I trained to go into homeless shelters and read with kids.  I was trying to get them to remember their first experiences being read with—who read with them, what did they read, how did it make them feel?

‘Inevitably, people shared heartwarming stories of sweet family memories.  I wanted to share my story, but of course it was different from the rest. 

‘This is what I remember:  We lived way out in the country and the school bus came out to pick us all up.  We were the poor family in the ramshackle house you could see from the road—very embarrassing. 

‘I was maybe five or six, a knobbly-kneed stringy haired little kid who climbed on board an already packed school bus.  She was a high school girl who always sat on the end of the seat near the back of the bus.  Like usual, no one moved over so I could sit with them.

‘But one day, all of a sudden, she scootched over.  I sat down.  And so it was, every day after that.  The high school kids were always picked up first, so the bus was half-packed by the time it came to pick up the little kids.  And there she was, always on the end of the seat until she saw me, and then she moved over to make room for me.

‘I have no memory of ever talking with her.  I have no idea what her name was.  But you see, she made a place for me.  She treated me with kindness—something I didn’t experience much.  She recognized me as an individual, she treated me with respect.

‘So why did I share this memory with my volunteers?  Because every day, all the way to and from school on the bus, she read to herself.  As a little kid, this is the one memory I have of someone reading in my presence.  From an early age, that’s what I knew:  people who read are kind and gentle and caring.  And I wanted to be just like her.  That’s how powerful that memory is for me.  She was my role model, and she will never know it.  I wanted to show my volunteers that they can have that kind of impact on a child as well.

‘For you, I share the story because it illustrates what’s helped me throughout my life.  I took the good and left the rest.  Most of my world treated me like a throwaway child. What sustained me then, as a young girl, was that one person treated me with respect.

‘In your life you’ll find people who disregard or disrespect you.  Don’t spend your energy on them.  That will help you find the many positive people who might be mentors or role models.  But remember: these people are just that, people.  Human beings who have their own challenges.  My heartfelt advice to you is to take the good you find along the way, and leave the rest.  You only have so much energy.  Focus on the good.

‘The next bit of unorthodox advice I want to share I learned from an inmate at an insane asylum.  I am a fan of classic films.  In the film “Harvey,” Jimmy Stewart befriends a six-foot invisible rabbit.  And, of course, Jimmy’s considered a bit of a mental case.  The other characters spend most of the film trying to get him committed, but along the way he shares some uncommon wisdom of his own.  Quoting his mother, she said, “Son, in this world, you have to be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.”  His response:  “Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

‘Students, I recommend pleasant as well.  Smart sometimes isn’t in your control—we all have our strengths and weaknesses academically—so smart isn’t always an option.  But we can always be kind.  How we respond to circumstances is a choice.  When the world seems to be telling us to get even, to “represent,” if you can just consistently choose to respond with kindness, you will see that with kindness you will always be building bridges.  Answer negativity with kindness and you will always be on the winning side.  Kindness is contagious and yes, a sign of true strength.  When challenged, only the strong answer with kindness. 

‘Choose to be kind and people won’t mind so much that you might actually have the better idea.  Kindness is the currency of a civilized culture.  It opens doors, it soothes hurt feelings, it changes hearts.  Choose to be kind and good will come to you even in the darkest hours.

‘Students, congratulations for making it to this point.  You are true survivors.  You are exactly where you are supposed to be.  You deserve these opportunities.

‘Today you are seeing your destiny.  Go forth and fail just as much as you need to.  Be kind.  Listen deeply.  Forgive yourselves and take all the good the world will offer you.  Grab onto this lifeline.  You can do and be all that you ever dared dream.  God bless you.  Now, go get your education.’

“Pat’s Story” copyright (c) 2010 Pat Downs.  All rights reserved.

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