Thursday, June 9, 2011

Inspirational Speech by Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie of U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals

United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie was the Keynote Speaker at the Lackawanna Bar Association's Interfaith Prayer Service on Friday, May 13, 2011, and his words were inspirational. For those of you not able to attend, below is a copy of Judge Vanaskie's remarks:



Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here with you at the annual Interfaith Prayer Service and to be with my colleagues on the Federal and State Courts for whom I have much admiration.

“Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything. Love will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.” Words of advice, not from Tom Vanaskie, but from Father Pedro Arrupe, and they are indeed sage words. Look at your experiences, from childhood to adulthood, and you will see how love has pervaded your being, from children at play, to teens experiencing first relationships, to marriage, to bringing up children, to your interactions with nieces and nephews, to how you love and are loved by your grandchildren.

And of course, this power of love transcends individual relationships. Those fortunate to be able to pursue a profession or vocation they love do not consider themselves at work. They don’t count the hours or watch the clock, and they are fulfilled by pursuit of their love. Not many, of course, are blessed with the ability to earn a living pursuing something they love, so they turn to other endeavors, whether it is some sport, like running, or perhaps it is tutoring, gardening, cooking, or just taking care of others. They are engaged. They are the opposite of indifference.

There is a line from a movie that strikes me when I think of this subject of the power and meaning of love. An old, grizzly tough guy played by Robert Duvall gives this advice to a young boy. He said that “sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a person needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil;” and then he said, “I want you to remember this, that love…true love never dies.” He concluded that a person should believe in those things because those are the things that are worth believing in.

If you want to do good in this crazy society of ours, you must have those beliefs: that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything, and that people are basically good, and that good always triumphs over evil. America was built upon dreamers with such beliefs. We have had our share of bad and evil people. They are usually the cynics. They prey on vulnerabilities and judge on appearances. They are opinionated and judgmental. But those who share those things that are worth believing in are slow to judge, assist the vulnerable, and are optimists.

In a novel a great friend recommended to me, The Shack, a father whose four year old daughter is abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered without her body being recovered has lost his faith in a benevolent deity. The book is one of redemption of the soul as the dad returns to the shack where it is believed his daughter was murdered ten years after she went missing. There he encounters God, or as this book is written from a Christian perspective, the three persons in one God. The book contains some pearls of wisdom that are agnostic, but reflect this power that love creates. One passage I particularly think is compelling goes as follows, “relationships are never about power…one way to avoid (taking advantage of power) is to choose to limit oneself – to serve. Humans often do this in touching the infirmed and sick, in serving the ones whose minds are left to wander, in relating to the poor, in loving the very old and the very young.”

We see so many examples of love prodding a person to limit himself or herself. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor left the Supreme Court to spend time with her husband, stricken with Alzheimer’s. I saw Ruth Davies limit herself in caring for her daughter, Julia. Indeed, each and every person has at one time or another limited himself or herself as part of a true relationship.

In the words of the God figure in The Shack, “you choose to limit yourself so as to facilitate and honor that relationship. You will even lose a competition to accomplish love. It is not about winning and losing, but about love and respect.”

This limitation of oneself to build enduring relationships shows that we are all, to use a phrase close to the heart of Sondra Myers, interdependent. We have a mutual need for the talents, intellect, and hard work of each other.

Another book I read in the more distant past on the recommendation of my children was the Life of Pi. It approaches the mysteries of life and our existence through the lens of different major religions. But each religion has come to the “realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not immediately, but nonetheless ineluctably.”

Ultimately, the work we do in the law must be premised upon those things worth believing in and on love for our fellow human beings. Those who embrace this value system recognize that we are truly interdependent and not independent creatures. And pursuing this approach often necessitates a limitation of oneself. Consider a couple examples, one historical and one current.

In 1797, John Adams, became our nation’s second President and the first of many lawyer-presidents. He was also a courageous defender of those he thought unjustly accused and the man who first penned the famous phrase, “a government of laws and not of men.” But let’s go back to 1770, 27 years before Adams became President and five years before the Revolutionary War began.

Adams was in Boston, already a leader in Massachusetts Colony’s growing resistance to British rule and especially British taxes. By 1770, Boston had about 20,000 residents plus 4,000 British soldiers sent to keep order among those unruly colonists and to collect those taxes. Tensions ran high. Late one cold winter evening, March 5, 1770, protesters gathered downtown, near a small group of soldiers. Things got loud and confusing and suddenly the soldiers shot into the crowd. Five civilians died (the Boston Massacre). The public was incensed. The atmosphere in Boston was poisonous. John Adams’ cousin, Sam Adams, one of the leaders of the Colonists, called the killings a bloody butchery and distributed a print published by Paul Revere vividly portraying the scene as a slaughter of the innocent, an image of British tyranny that would become fixed in the public’s mind.

The soldiers and their leader, Captain Tom Preston, were arrested for murder. But some people called it a riot, not a massacre, saying the soldiers had been threatened and pelted with rocks, snowballs and the like. The following day 34 year old John Adams was asked to defend the soldiers and their captain when they came to trial. No one else would take the case.

Even though John Adams was a leader in the resistance to British rule, he believed these Brits (Preston and his soldiers) deserved a defense, and he gave them a fine one. He won acquittal of the Captain by convincing a jury that the officer had not ordered his troops to fire. He defended the soldiers on grounds of self defense against a mob. Six were acquitted, two others convicted of manslaughter. The trial was the first time a judge used the phrase “reasonable doubt,” a concept our courts later found inherent in the phrase “due process of law.”

Taking their cases was a very unpopular act. During the trial, threats were made on his life and his family. John Adams’ defense in the Boston Massacre trials was a courageous example of adherence to the rule of law and defense of the rights of the accused. It showed his love for justice and, by the way, his Country. Years later, John Adams wrote that this defense, in light of so much public scorn, was one of the finest things he’d ever done for his Country.

That love for justice and adherence to the rule of law is never more important than when advocates represent unpopular clients in times of heated public controversy and times of turmoil.

Many lawyers have volunteered to test the rules of detention of Guantanamo Bay detainees and get the prisoners access to counsel and to some process and some Supreme Court rulings. In fact, of the50 largest law firms in the United Sates, at least 34 have either represented detainees or filed amicus briefs in support of detainees.

Many of these lawyers and their law firms have been attacked by leaders in the other two branches of our government. As an example, a high ranking Pentagon official in 2007, after reciting the names of some of these law firms said, “I think, quite honestly when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.”

Many of these same lawyers went to work in the Department of Justice. Members of Congress have questioned whether they should be employed by the Department after their work on behalf of detainees. At an oversight hearing, Attorney General Holder, in April of 2010, was asked by a member of the judiciary committee:

Question: So a very simple yes or no question: would you provide the names of political appointees at the department who have previously represented detainees or advocated on detainee issues?


Holder: With all due respect, Senator, and I know that your request comes from what I will call a good place. Yours was an honorable request. And the hesitance that I had, I think has been borne out by what I have seen. There has been an attempt to take the names of the people who represented Guantanamo detainees and to drag their reputation through the mud. There were reprehensible ads used to question their – in essence to question their patriotism. I’m not going to allow these kids – I’m not going to be part of that effort. And so with all due respect, their names are out there now, and the positions that they hold are out there. That’s all been placed in the public record; I am simply not going to be a part of that effort. I will not allow good decent lawyers who have followed the greatest traditions of American Jurisprudence, done what John Adams, done what our Chief Justice has said is appropriate, I will not allow their reputations to be disparaged. I will not be part of that.


So as you can see, John Adams’ legacy continues to inspire lawyers to this day. The lawyers of today, just as John Adams, are dreamers and believers in those values worth believing in; that the rule of law must predominate in tumultuous times, that virtue, honor and courage are everything, and that the good will ultimately triumph over evil by remaining good.

As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned in the 2004 decision of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, a case that involved an American citizen who was detained as an enemy combatant, “it is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our Nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested, and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.”

Lawyers are called to follow in Adams’ footsteps, and it’s not easy. The practice of law is not a popularity contest. Rather, it is a noble profession whose aim is to do what’s right on the evidence and under the law, in spite of popular sentiment at any given time. It can involve great sacrifice, but the costs to the nation and the world, would be far greater were we to lose these ideals. Those of us who have fallen in love with this profession certainly understand that.


Thank you.

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