On the Morality of the Legal Profession
by Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898)
Many years ago, a lawyer, distinguished for his eloquence and high social character, successfully defended a vile murderer, and, by his tact, boldness and emotion, secured a verdict of acquittal. When the accused was released, he descended into the crowd of the court house to receive the congratulations of his degraded companions, and, almost wild with elation, advanced toward his lawyer, offering his hand, with profuse expressions of admiration and gratitude. The dignified lawyer sternly joined his own hands behind his back and turned away, saying: "I touch no man's hand that is foul with murder." But in what light did this lawyer learn that this criminal was too base to be recognized as a fellow man? The court had pronounced him innocent! It was only by the light of his own private judgment—a private judgment formed not only in advance of, but in the teeth of, the official verdict. Where, now, were all the quibbles by which this honorable gentleman had persuaded himself to lend his professional skill to protect from a righteous verdict a wretch too vile to touch his hand? Doubtless, this lawyer's understanding spoke now, clear enough, in some such terms as these: "my hand is my own; it is purely a personal question to myself whether I shall give it to this murderer; and, in deciding that personal question, I have a right to be guided by my own personal opinion. In claiming this, I infringe no legal right to life, liberty or possessions, which the constituted authorities have restored him." But was not the lawyer's tongue his own, in the same way as his hand? Was not the question, whether he could answer to his God for having used his tongue to prevent the punishment of crime, as much a private personal, individual matter, to be decided by his own private judgment, as the question whether he should shake hands with a felon?