Patriotism much alive in judge's legacy

November 18, 2001|By C. Fraser Smith

AT A TIME when patriotism has been defined as shopping or running into burning buildings, we may fail to recognize the less dramatic contributions made by living in accord with our values.

An elite of politics and the law met recently, for example, to inaugurate a memorial to Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., a lawyer and judge they remembered as a luminous citizen of his city and the world.

No one spoke of Sept. 11, but everything about this celebration defied those who define themselves by mass murder. Mr. Murnaghan's friends gathered at the Peabody Conservatory Library, a preserve of culture and civility.

They have given Baltimore's Public Justice Center a lawyer who will pursue appeals with potential to achieve decisions of wide-ranging importance to the disadvantaged, who sometimes have no representation in civil matters.

Winners of the new one-year Murnaghan fellowship will hope to establish precedents in matters such as child custody, eviction and job discrimination.

They and the center hope to achieve what some have called a "civil Gideon" - a right to counsel in civil matters paralleling the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 ruling on representation in criminal cases.

Notoriously grumpy about accolades, let alone memorials, Mr. Murnaghan's friends thought he would have approved.

They hailed him as a ferociously competitive lawyer and a lover of the classics. He had been a mentor or a model for many in this audience of Marylanders whose lives have been devoted to the law as a foundation of civilized society.

Planned long before Sept. 11, the elegant ceremony was another form of getting on with life. The planners were maintaining the momentum of legal reform, paying tribute to a life well and generously lived - hoping to make the law as inclusive as we say it is.

What Mr. Murnaghan's friends were doing - what he had done - was the equivalent of running into burning buildings. Until the courts accommodate us all, the structure of democracy is burning.

The guests included U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Diana G. Motz, U.S. District Judge Andre Davis and E. Clinton Bamberger, first director of the federal Legal Services Corp..

Mr. Murnaghan's widow, Diana, remembered him in a way that seemed especially important in today's world. "He woke up every morning," she said, "thinking that every battle could be won. He didn't ask what he could do for his country. He just did it."

As a lawyer, she said, her husband relished "the combat of word and wit." And, according to his many admirers, he wished to see the majesty of the law employed on behalf of those who line up at Our Daily Bread as well as those who sip cocktails in sublime buildings.

A the Peabody, the fellowship planners met the first winner, Lewis Yelin, who has a doctorate in philosophy as well as a law degree from Columbia Law School. Mr. Sachs introduced him as a man who enjoys finding conservative routes to liberal ends. In other words, said Mr. Sachs, "Rehnquist and Scalia equals Thurgood Marshall." Mr. Yelin said he was "extraordinarily pleased" to have Mr. Murnaghan as his mentor in spirit.

Mr. Sachs went on to hail Frank Murnaghan, the scholar.

"He had read the interminable output of Anthony Trollope," he said. He came to the writing of legal opinions and briefs as a man descended from the great Irish poets. He loved precision, relying upon the Oxford English Dictionary. He knew the works of the Greek writer Heraclitus. His language was perfectly lucid, urbane and rich, said Mr. Sachs.

Most striking was the "angry reformer" below a surface of refinement. With optimism for the law, he quoted Heraclitus: "Nothing is but is becoming."

To accelerate that evolution, the fellowship program needs $1.5 million. That sum would produce sufficient income to pay expenses associated with the fellow's work. The Abell Foundation and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore made grants to cover year one.

Mr. Sachs said this memorial has a chance to escape the pitfalls described by the English poet John Webster, who wrote of kings "who seek by trophies and dead things/ To leave a living name behind/And weave but nets to catch the wind."

The net cast by Frank Murnaghan and his friends may catch the essence of patriotism.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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