Written by: Jeff Pokorak
The Carnegie report exhorts us to “put the client back into legal education.” I know many have done great work surfacing the biographies of clients and litigants in cases before our students. From a fuller contextualization of the litigants Jesse Pierson and Lodowick Post to the sad path of Ernesto Miranda’s life, there is a wealth of information available to help us reanimate our classes with the (ghosts) of the case clients.
But what I want to address here is the casual way in which we forget to name or humanize in our efforts to diminish or aggrandize. Not only the common use of the words “defendant” or “victim” in criminal courts…. But recent writings of others made me wonder: Do slaves or former slaves actually have real names? Do those executed exist outsideof a description of their status? Follow me after the jump for examples of each….
If the South had won the Civil War, what would our schoolchildren be taught about the abolitionists today? Some in the antislavery movement were as extreme, in their way, as the Southern “fire-eaters.” We tend to think of the secessionists as resisting federal authority during the run-up to Fort Sumpter. But the antislavery side had its moments of nullification as well. In 1851, a Boston crowd broke into a federal courthouse to free “Shadrach,” a black man being held there by U.S. marshals enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. Abolitionist Theodore Parker declared this blatant defiance of Washington “the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea in 1773.”
Now, I will leave you to consider the false equivalence argument regarding Thoreau-style citizen action and civil disobedience against a perceived unjust law and state-sponsored legal interposition, slavery and war. In fact, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates for that discussion….
What I am interested in are those bunny ears. Those scare quotes. Y’know: “Shadrach.” The man in question had a name: Shadrach Minkins. It was not a nick-name (like “fire-eaters”) and was not a false name. He was a person, albeit one sold from and into bondage. He was not a disembodied idea. But at least Mr. Minkins got some bit of his identity, although in a perhaps race-elitist way, into the Washington Post piece.
Names matter. They matter in the courts and they matter in the classroom. What got me started on all this naming stuff was this recent juxtaposition of “famous law professor” and unnamed death row fellow:
At 6:30 p.m., we will screen the award-winning documentary “ROBERT BLECKER WANTS ME DEAD.” This film — which is riveting and disturbing at the same time — is about the relationship between New York Law School Professor Robert Blecker, a very thoughtful advocate of the death penalty, and a death row inmate in Tennessee who murdered his four children. …
OK, so we are important because we are law professors. That means we have names. But the people upon whose backs (lives?) we build our importantness are nameless and relegated to lower type? As I responded at the time: “It just doesn’t seem sporting.”
It ends up that the fellow who the “Professor” wants dead and is the subject of the movie is/was Mr. Daryl Holton, executed by Tennessee in 2007. Not hard to discover, but somehow not important enough to mention.
I know this community has valuable stories to share about there efforts at bring a name — and a client — to the table. I would love for people in the comments to leave us examples and links to such naming and humanizing efforts.