October 26, 2007

I think each of us needs at least one real hero.  Last night I attended a reception honoring one of mine.

In 1982 I realized my teenaged and pre-teen sons could make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  That meant I was free from the Catholic School rule that you may be whatever you want as long as your husband and children are fed.  So, I applied for law school and was turned down.  In 1983, I applied again, was wait-listed, but did not get in.  Finally, in 1984, I was accepted.  In the fall, having stocked up on peanut butter and jelly, I began taking classes.  In the first semester, one of my classes was Administrative Procedures, taught by a professor named Jim Ellis.  He was pretty amazing in the classroom.  We (the 50+ students in that class) quickly realized that every session was a 3-way conversation.  Professor Ellis spoke with us, Professor Ellis spoke with himself, and Professor Ellis spoke with God.  Sometimes it was difficult to sort out, but it was always enlightening.

At the end of the semester, he asked me — a lowly 1-L — if I would join a team preparing an amicus brief for the United States Supreme Court in “Cleburne Living Centers v City of Cleburne, Texas”.  During all of semester break and for most of the second semester I researched laws of all 50 states looking for statutes that reflected our country’s support of eugenics (we only think Hitler invented it).  I learned that persons with mental disabilities were sterilized, not permitted to marry, institutionalized without protective process.

The case was about zoning.  Cleburne, Texas had enacted zoning laws that made it absolutely impossible for group homes serving persons with mental disabilities to locate anywhere within the City limits.  There was too much traffic or not enough traffic, there was insufficient shopping or too much commercial development.  No place in this city was the right place.

Seven or eight students worked on the brief.  Our clients were the professional organizations whose goals are to promote fair treatment of persons with mental disabilities.  We compiled, drafted, re-drafted, checked and re-checked every fact and every word in that brief.

Finally the brief was sent to the printer for submission to the Court.  Our clients arranged for those of us who had worked on the brief to attend oral argument in the Supreme Court.  We stayed in a hotel fashioned from some row houses in Georgetown.  We went to the library of Congress to do some last minute research, we went to the mall and visited the National Gallery and the Smithsonian — all the prelude to entering the Supreme Court building to hear the arguing attorneys present the information we had helped develop.  When I went up those marble stairs and between the pillars, I believed that justice was done in that building.

I graduated from law school, passed the bar and have been practicing for twenty years.  I handle primarily federal felony defense.  Jim Ellis is still a professor at my alma mater and nearly every year he assembles a team of students and professors who undertake preparation of an appellate brief that addresses the rights and protections of persons with mental disabilities.

Although Professor Ellis testified before numerous legislative committees and provided support to those who litigated the issues, he was never the litigator himself — until “Atkins v. Virginia”.  That was his first and, as far as I know, only foray into the courtroom.  His first court appearance was before the United States Supreme Court.  In that debut he eloquently and unequivocally argued that those with mental disabilities should not be executed.  He argued that when people are not capable of understanding the charges against them and the consequences of those charges, they should not be subject to the death penalty.  He pointed out to the court that even among Americans favoring the death penalty, the majority was opposed to executing the mentally disabled.  The Supreme Court agreed with him and we no longer execute those who suffer from mental disability.

Last night, we came together in the forum of our law school to honor him.  We honored him not only because he changed the terrain of criminal law, but also because he did it with grace, diligence, and a steadfast belief that someday our nation would embrace a semblance of humanity.  We honored him because there are so many of us who were and are inspired by his honest efforts, good humor, brilliant legal thinking, and tenacity.

Tony Armstrong, noted professor from NYU Law School was present last night and reminded us that in these times of sweeping government lawlessness, it is the honorable people like Jim Ellis that reflect who we want to be.

 Jim Ellis is my hero.