Duck! and Gather

Discovering America

Posted on: November 3, 2010

I spent last weekend in Pasadena attending a celebration of Judge Alfred T. Goodwin’s 40 years of service on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At 87, Judge Goodwin is still spry, and an active judge on this circuit.

The celebration was organized and attended by Judge Goodwin’s clerks from over the past 40 years, and even from the 1960s, when he was a state judge in Oregon. There were 80 or so of us, including some spouses and children. Our ages ranged from fresh-faced law school grads serving as his current clerks, to 70-somethings, and every age in between. In this way alone, it was a unique gathering.

Moreover, everyone seemed open, gregarious, congenial, intelligent, and kind-hearted. I sort of suspect this is because of Judge Goodwin himself. I mean, those adjectives describe the man, and I suspect we former clerks kind of fall in line with his demeanor when in his orbit.

But the gathering was even more significant to me for another reason.

At the Saturday night dinner, there was an open mike. Many former clerks got up and told funny stories about their interactions with the judge.

I didn’t get up. This must have been the first open mike in 25 years of weddings and other gatherings at which I passed on an open mike.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. Instead, it was that, frankly, I just didn’t remember any conversations from 1991-92, when I clerked. My memory doesn’t work that way.

Early Sunday morning, after sunrise, I walked around the streets of Pasadena. As I did, my thoughts about the weekend crystalized. Why, I asked myself, was I so eager to attend these events celebrating Judge Goodwin? From where did this eagerness arise, given that I had left the practice of law in 1996, never to look back, and that I couldn’t even remember much about my time with the judge?

At that moment I recalled that I don’t remember much about my first ex-wife either — with whom I spent the better part of 12 years. I mean, I don’t remember our conversations, nor what foods she liked, nor her tastes. But I do remember how I used to feel when in her presence. [Don’t get me wrong: I know how I feel in my current wife’s presence and it ain’t too shabby either. :)]

In a similar way, I do remember clearly how I felt in 1991-92 in the presence of Judge Goodwin, working in his chambers. Those feelings are captured by one word: reverence.

Where those feelings came from were 3-4 Ninth Circuit cases from 1991-92. As a clerk, each of us handled something like 2-3 dozen cases a year. That meant that we read the pleadings, and summarized the facts and issues in the form of “bench memoranda”.  I don’t remember the vast majority of the cases on which I worked.

But I do clearly remember 3-4 of them.  I remember them because they symbolized a certain dynamic that informed the judge’s chambers — a dynamic that moved me then, and still does 20 years later.

These memorable cases all involved a clash of justice versus the law. That is, the facts of these cases brought squarely into question notions of basic human decency and justice. But the dominant applicable strains of law in those cases contradicted this sense of justice.

I remember Judge Goodwin being a man who valued warm justice over cold inflexible law. Not in a grand-standing, public sort of way. But rather in the quiet, steady, month upon month way through which children are optimally raised, and the love between us fosters and deepens.

True justice is practiced in the same steady, perpetual, quiet way. I remember Judge Goodwin’s sense of justice being the old, eternal kind. The kind that spans cultures and times, without a shred of dogma or ideology. And this, from a Republican appointed to the federal bench by Richard Nixon.

This weekend, I shared my justice vs. law stories with some other former clerks and wasn’t surprised to find out that they had experienced something similar.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps the judge had picked us as his clerks for this very reason. That is, not only were we top students, from the top schools, but we harbored a strong, if inchoate, sense of justice.

Clerking for Judge Goodwin was a powerful, formative experience for me. At the age of 25, I moved to the U.S. from Canada to attend Stanford Law School. My clerkship with judge Goodwin was my very first job in the U.S.

And what a job! Working in the belly of the machine that is the United States Government.

As  a Canadian, I was curious to learn what sort of people populated and ran this machine. This same machine that leaves potholes in the roads, renders the public schools wastelands, and denies people basic essential health care. I had read the glorious history of America and knew of its promise. Yet the present contradictions puzzled me.

In 1991-92, clerking for Judge Goodwin, I discovered America for first time. I mean, America the beautiful. The land in which government was created to protect the defenseless weak from the ravenous strong. I found that nation in the persona of my first employer.

In some ways, Judge Goodwin is a dinosaur. A man from a different time. A lost time. A better time.

But I am an American optimist. And I believe, after decades of venality, selfishness, and cruelty, that honorable men like Judge Goodwin (and women this time too!) will soon once again emerge to lead this glorious nation out of dark days that await us.

for the money has gone too far

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November 2010
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