Crossing the Bar: Notable Lawyers Who Left Us in 2015

Posted in: Other Commentary

Lawyers pass the bar when they pass the bar examination and are admitted to practice. We call it “the bar,” not because of the reputation of litigation lawyers for hard drinking, but because in England it meant that lawyers were allowed to practice before the courts, as barristers. The “bar” is a wooden barrier that separated the public from the front of the courtroom. “Barrister” comes from the Law French (“barre”), which in turn comes from the Latin, “barra.”

Lawyers also pass the bar a second time, when they depart from this life, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem, “Crossing the Bar.” He wrote three years before his own death. When it came his turn to die, he directed that this short poem should be included as the final poem in any collections of his works. For Tennyson, the barrier between life and death was like a sand bar. The waves constantly smash against the bar, making a sound. We should not fear death —“may there be no moaning of the bar,” Tennyson tells us — when we are “put out to sea.”

In 2015, many notable lawyers passed the bar that separates this life from the next one, the “boundless deep” that lies beyond. Here is a short, incomplete list, in no particular order.

The year began with the death of Mario Matthew Cuomo (June 15, 1932, to January 1, 2015). He was a lawyer and the 52nd Governor of New York. He served for three terms (1983 to 1994. His political career started with defeat: he ran for, and lost, the Lieutenant-Governor race in 1974; ditto for the race of Mayor of New York City in 197. In 1978, he was elected Lieutenant-Governor; he became governor in 1982 and held the position for twelve years.

On January 3, 2015, Edward W. Brooke, died at age 95, in Coral Gables, Florida. In 1966, this Massachusetts Republican became the first black person elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. He was reelected in 1972. The Boston Globe tells us, incorrectly, that he “became the first black person in US history to win popular election to the Senate.” That is simply wrong. There were quite a number of black U.S. Senators (during the Reconstruction era), and, like Brooke, they were all Republicans. When Illinois elected Carol Mosley Braun to the Senate in 1993, some newspapers pointed out that she was the first black female Senator. That is true, but she was also the first black Democratic Senator.

On June 6, 2015, Vincent Bugliosi died (born, Aug. 18, 1934). He was a lawyer in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office for eight years as well as a best-selling author. He successfully prosecuted Charles Manson. In fact, he prosecuted 21 murder convictions and never lost even one.

Fred Thompson, former Republican Senator from Tennessee (1994 to 2003), died on Sunday, November 1, 2015 (age of 73). I first met him when I was Assistant Majority Counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee and he was Chief Minority Counsel. Some people credit Thompson with framing the question that Sen. Howard Baker asked repeatedly, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Thompson was a practicing lawyer, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Senator, T.V. and movie actor, radio host, and presidential candidate. He led a remarkably full life. When President Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, told Nixon of Thompson’s appointment to counsel for the Senate Watergate committee, the tapes indicate that Nixon said, “Oh s—, that kid.” Thompson was only 30 at the time.

Solomon S. Seay, Jr. (Dec. 2, 1931 to September 11, 2015) was a notable civil rights lawyer. He worked on the Selma to Montgomery March, the Freedom Riders, and public school desegregation. He was born and died in Montgomery, Alabama. After earning his law degree from Howard University, he returned home to Montgomery to fight for civil rights. The State of Alabama paid his tuition, books, room and board. Alabama was not really being generous. The state paid those expenses because he was not eligible to attend the state university because of his color. Educating him out of state was the state’s version of “separate but equal.” In 2009, he published “Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer.”

Loredana Nesci, 47, former police officer, and lawyer, a lawyer on a reality show, on the Sundance Channel. She called herself “the Legal Diva.” In July of 2015, her life ended violently, in Redondo Beach. The police suspected foul play, and arrested Robert Reagan, 51, her longtime boyfriend and father of her five-year-old son Rocco. He said he acted in self-defense. The state charged the boyfriend, and he made bail last September.

Lawyers tend to do well, financially speaking. Joe Jamail did extraordinarily well: he was a member of the billionaire club. He died December 23, in Houston, of complications from pneumonia. He started practicing law in 1952. He became a plaintiff’s lawyer and racked up jury verdicts of more than $13 billion, with at least 500 jury and bench trials. In 2014, Forbes estimated his net worth to be $1.7 billion. He gave millions to various charitable organizations, with one of his largest beneficiary being the University of Texas, from which he graduated law school.

Mr. Jamail made an appearance in my ethics casebook, because of an exchange in a deposition. A lawyer protested Mr. Jamail’s objection during a deposition. The lawyer called him, “Joe,” and Jamail responded, “Don’t ‘Joe’ me, asshole. You can ask some questions, but get off of that. I’m tired of you. You could gag a maggot off a meat wagon.” Yes, he was a colorful character. For a more complete transcript, see the appendix to Paramount Communications Inc. v. QVC Network Inc., 637 A.2d 34 (Del. 1994). The Delaware Supreme Court was not amused.

On December 23, Richard S. Ketcham, a well-known defense lawyer in Ohio, died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In 2013, the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers named him Lawyer of the Year. He represented defendants in over 40 death cases. He helped exonerate Timothy Howard and Gary James, both of whom had been sentenced to the death penalty in 1977 for bank robbery and murder. They were released in 2003. In 2006, Howard received $2.5 million in compensation from the State of Ohio. Shortly thereafter, he died of a heart attack. James was awarded $1.5 million in 2007.

On November 28, Tahir Elci, a prominent Kurdish lawyer and human rights defender, was participating in a press conference in Diyarbakir, Turkey. A month earlier, he said on television that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), is not a terrorist organization. The Turkish government responded by charging him with engaging in terrorist propaganda. He faced over seven years in prison. He reported on his Twitter account that he had received death threats for his work on behalf of the Kurds. He will not face that charge now because, at his press conference last November, he was shot and murdered. He was only 49, the head of the bar association in that mainly Kurdish city, and a human rights activist. The Interior minister said the assault was really against police officers, and that Elci was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. The Diyarbakir Bar Association, however, said that Elci was the target of the attack.

The lawyers in this incomplete list have departed this life and gone to what Shakespeare called the “undiscovered country,” where we all will go but from where no one returns. [Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 86-87.] Tennyson tells us not to worry when we also pass the bar:

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot [God] face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Posted in: Other Commentary

Tags: Legal