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CLARENCE DARROW: ATTORNEY FOR THE DAMNED




 

Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938) is the most famous trial lawyer in American history. He is known for his defense of those condemned by public opinion. Lincoln Steffens called Darrow "the attorney for the damned"—a characterization that became his popular sobriquet.

Darrow began his career in Chicago as a railroad attorney. But he soon became dissatisfied with working for a corporation when that meant using the law to deprive workers of compensation for the pain and mutilation incident to industrial enterprise. When, during the Pullman strike of 1894, an injunction was secured against Eugene V. Debs and other union officials, Darrow resigned his railroad position to defend them.

For the rest of his career, Darrow's efforts were largely devoted to the defense of criminal defendants. Many of his cases were causes celebres at the time: his securing of pardons for three of the Haymarket rioters in 1893; his defense of the dynamiters of the Los Angeles Times in 1911; and that of the "thrill" murderers in the Loeb-Leopold trial in 1924. His clients were often labor organizers, Socialists, Communists, and others on the leftist fringe. This gave him the undeserved reputation of a dangerous radical. Yet Darrow was far from sharing the extremist views of many of those whom he defended.

What attracted Darrow to his clients was not their political views, but the fact that they needed a defense. "Everybody," he once said, "is entitled to a defense; it is not only the right, but the duty, of every lawyer to defend." Darrow was the twentieth-century exemplar of the tradition that had led John Adams to represent the Boston Massacre defendants. Justice Hugo L. Black listed Darrow among those lawyers "who have dared to speak in defense of causes and clients without regard to personal danger to themselves."

Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "Darrow used the law to promote social justice as he saw it." Darrow employed the law to oppose prevailing legal concepts in labor law and criminal law. Darrow used his cases to tilt a continual lance against the rules that bore so heavily on the industrial worker. Throughout his life, Douglas says, "Darrow pleaded for the men and women—the flesh and blood—that made the wheels of industry move."



To the public, Darrow was the prototype of the criminal lawyer, and he constantly used Ms practice to further criminal-law reform. Never had an eminent practitioner urged such far-reaching changes. Steffens once described Darrow: "The powerful orator hulking his way slowly, thoughtfully, extemporizing ... hands in pocket, head down and eyes up, wondering what it is all about, to the inevitable conclusion which he throws off with a toss of his shrugging shoulders: 'I don't know… We don't know… Not enough to kill or even to judge one another." The Darrow remark contains the gist of his attitude toward criminal law. "I may hate the sin," went a famous Darrow statement, "but never the sinner." Nor did he or anyone else know enough about either the sin or the sinner to sit as judge over others. Instead, the concept of punishment that was still the criminal-law foundation was a remnant of the barbarism that had characterized the common law of crimes.

Darrow was considered particularly radical because of his opposition to the death penalty. He almost never turned down capital cases; he used them as forums against capital punishment. Darrow undertook his most controversial defense—that in People v. Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold— because it would present him with a courtroom platform that could serve as the culmination of his lifelong crusade against the death penalty, so that, in the words of his final plea in the case, "I have done something ... to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love."



Although never fully accepted by the elite of the profession, to the public Darrow became a folk hero in his own time—in Irving Stone's phrase, "the Tom Paine of the twentieth century, fighting for the rights of the man, the voice that spoke when other voices were hushed and still." His Lincolnesque appearance, with his "poor man's suit" and "baggy pants," his famous galluses, and his ability to communicate in what he called "bad English"—that is, the vernacular that all could understand— all these added to the legend.

Darrow was one of those who also helped point the way to the coming legal era. His views on social legislation played their part in breaking down the negative conception of law, with its predominant hands-off theme as far as economic affairs were concerned. "Do you doubt," asked Darrow in 1903, when the courts were routinely striking down maximum-hours laws, "that the eight-hour day is coming? Does anybody doubt that it is coming?" Darrow never doubted that the law should be used as a positive instrument to meet the "demand for the individual to have a better life, a fuller life, a completer life." To promote that demand "is the purpose of every law-making power."

 

 


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