Lincoln's love for the law

I hope my students will follow his admonition: Be a lawyer only if you can be honest.

"I am not an accomplished lawyer," said Abraham Lincoln. Yet his courtroom panache is still taught in law school today as a classic on how to conduct cross examination. In his virtuoso defense of a falsely accused client, Lincoln used simple schedules of moonlight in an almanac to expose lies that had almost convicted a man of murder.

When I began teaching law students in Israel several years ago, I searched for a vehicle not only to convey theories of jurisprudence and the nuts and bolts of law, but also to inspire young people by showing them how their profession can enrich the world. So I tell them about Benjamin Cardozo, wealthy son of a crooked New York judge, who in shocked reaction to his father's ignominy became the most ethical of jurists. I mention Hugo Black, one-time member of the Klu Klux Klan, who turned his back on segregationism to champion individual liberties as a Supreme Court justice. I talk about Robert Jackson, Frank Murphy, and Owen Roberts, the courageous trio of Supreme Court dissenters in the Korematsu case of Japanese-American internment, who rejected the slippery slope that wartime dangers excuse racism.

When considering cruel and unusual punishment today, there is hardly a text more stirring than Clarence Darrow's 1924 argument against the death penalty for murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. And they learn that although Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated near the top of her class at Columbia Law School, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to consider her as a law clerk because she was a woman, and not one single firm in New York City offered her a job. Perhaps Ginsburg's personal battles to overcome professional discrimination helped galvanize her to help change the gender face of American law.

My students, who learned their English at school, are understandably intimidated by the thought of writing in a second language. That's why Lincoln is such a valuable example. He was the child of an illiterate mother and a father whose knowledge of writing was limited to signing his name. An auto-didact, he spent a total of less than two years in formal schoolrooms and studied law on his own by memorizing borrowed treatises. In the company of fellow American presidents nurtured in the Ivy League, Lincoln is considered most eloquent of all.

When a law student myself, I made the journey out of Manhattan one freezing February morning into the terra incognita of Brooklyn to visit the Brooklyn Museum. I found myself shivering in front of locked doors.

Spotting a big man in uniform, I accosted him. "How could this be?"

"Miss," he looked down at me, speaking in the soft slow voice one uses to educate a child, "the museum is closed today ... February 12th – Lincoln's Birthday."

In Brooklyn, it appeared, the memory of Old Abe was reason for reverence. On ensuing Feb. 12ths, I've often thought of that keeper of Lincoln's flame.

In my fashion, I've turned into one, too. My students read the carefully worded text of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which Lincoln asserted that his status as commander-in-chief during wartime empowered him to set free America's slaves. Then they study how he thereafter astutely maneuvered the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery to ensure that no executive or legislature could ever re-institute involuntary servitude.

I bring Lincoln's texts before my classes so these foreign students can emulate his example as a writer, but also in the hope that their estimation of the profession will be forged through his eyes. Lincoln gave the legal profession an equivocal recommendation: "Resolve to be honest at all events. And if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer."

Not bad advice, I bet that guard at the Brooklyn Museum would have said. Not bad advice at all, even in our jaded world of Feb. 12th, 2008.

• Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer teaching at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, is the author of "Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada."

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