Who would want to kill all the lawyers?

February 02, 1996|By Theo Lippman Jr.

THE AMERICAN Bar Association is holding its mid-year meeting in Baltimore this week. There are 3,000 extra lawyers in town. ABA President Roberta Cooper Ramo visited The Sun's editorial board to dispel the impression that lawyers are bad. ''So why all the lawyer jokes and criticism?'' she was asked. ''Public ignorance,'' she replied.

To prove her point, she said, ''Those bumper stickers, 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers'? Most people don't know that it was the bad guys who said that.''

That sounded familiar. I finally tracked it down to a comment and footnote in a 1985 Supreme Court dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens. The court upheld a U.S. law limiting the fees lawyers could charge in certain veterans-related suits. Justice Stevens wrote:

''I reject the current court's apparent unawareness of the function of the independent lawyer as a guardian of our freedom. . . . That function was, however, well understood by Jack Cade and his followers, characters who are often forgotten and whose most famous line is often misunderstood. Dick's statement ('The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers') was spoken by a rebel, not a friend of liberty. See W. Shakespeare, 'King Henry VI, Part II,'' Act IV, scene 2, line 72. As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government."

Maybe, maybe not.

The most careful reading of the text I'm aware of is in Daniel J. Kornstein's ''Kill All the Lawyers: Shakespeare's Legal Appeal'' (Princeton University Press. 1994.) Mr. Kornstein, a New York

lawyer, points out that Shakespeare was part of ''the court crowd'' -- mostly judges, lawyers and law students at London's Inns of Court. He speculates that the line may have been written as it was in part to get a loud reaction from an audience that included many lawyers. Like an exaggeration at a roast.

Enter the butcher

But there was more to it than that. Dick (whose full name is ''Dick the Butcher'') utters it after hearing the leader of a 15th-century proletarian revolt, Jack Cade, call for a rather drastic redistribution of the wealth. One interpretation of the line, writes Mr. Kornstein, is that since lawyers ''then as now were more available to the wealthy and powerful,'' revolutionaries would regard all of them as part of the problem. The line was definitely meant to be critical of lawyers.

But a second interpretation is that the line was a compliment to lawyers. Justice Stevens and many other lawyers have taken this view. The law protects liberty and justice from criminal revolutionaries, and lawyers are the best protectors of the law.

A third interpretation, and the one Mr. Kornstein seems to prefer, is that only ''false'' law was the target of Dick the Butcher's cry. He notes that Cade's mob was not anti-lawyer until they saw the law ''perverted'' by the lords of the realm and their lawyers.

Understood or mis-understood by those who utter it today, ''. . . kill all the lawyers'' suggests a public dissatisfaction with lawyers that goes deeper than a mere ignorance of Shakespeare or of the workings of the American legal system. The ABA needs to think about that.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former Sun editorial writer and columnist.

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