“Young Mr. Lincoln:” No Jackleg Lawyer

by Rich Cassidy on November 9, 2015

Youngmrlincoln“. Via Wikipedia.

Last weekend, I watched a classic lawyer movie, Young Mr. Lincoln. The 1939 film, directed by John Ford, stars a young Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln deciding to pursue a career in the law, and trying his first murder case.

Lincoln is portrayed as saving the lives of two clients-–a pair of brothers–not just once, but twice: first preventing them from being lynched on the evening of the murder, and then at trial before a local jury.

Before the trial begins, Lincoln describes himself to their mother as a “jackleg lawyer,” that is a lawyer lacking in skill, training and experience. Once the trial begins, we see the portrayal of anything but a jackleg.

The Lincoln we see uses humor, story, emotion, creativity, and diligent preparation to gain acquittal. He conducts a masterful cross examination. After very thoroughly committing the key witness to the proposition that was he able to see the crime because it was “moon bright,” Lincoln destroys his credibility by using the Farmer’s Almanac to show that murder occurred on a dark night and after the moon had set. In true Perry Mason style, he breaks the witness down and forces him to confess that he is the real killer.

The film is largely fiction, but the Farmer’s Almanac cross examination comes from a real Lincoln murder trial, his 1858 pro bono defense of William “Duff” Anderson in Beardstown, Illinois, in the  so-called, Almanac Trial.

The film is high drama, and young Fonda, looks convincingly like our vision of a lanky “Rail-splitter Abe.” And the lawyering is terrific, although  having a script that inexorably leads on the victory is an opportunity the real lawyers will never enjoy.

It is available for free on YouTube.


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Why I am a Literalist About the Law

by Rich Cassidy on October 23, 2015

Everyone is presumed to know the law. This is a useful — perhaps even an essential — legal fiction.

Of course, it is also entirely false. The truth is, no one knows the law. The law is far too massive and far too complex to be held in the mind of any single individual.

That is one reason why specialization has become very common among lawyers. No lawyer knows all of the law, but many know a very, very great deal about one or another legal subject matter.

Even though no lawyer knows all the law, competent lawyers know how to find the answer to most legal questions.

Some lawyers and judges act as though they believe the law has some existence outside of the cases, constitutions, statutes and regulations that embody it. They talk about it as though the law was a platonic ideal that exists apart from the sources that one would turn to find it.

Some, a smaller group I think, are believers in natural law. They believe that the law is derived from nature, reason or religion.

Perhaps either or both groups are right, but neither the platonic nor natural law view allows the average person or that person’s lawyer to know or even find the rules with any certainty.

When judges apply law from an abstract rather than from a textual source, they make the business of advising a client, and the efforts of clients to voluntarily comply with the law, nearly impossible.

If a law imposes binding obligations and all are expected to know it and comply with it, it seems to me that it must be something that a competent lawyer can find.



Thank You, Dan Richardson and Thank You, Vermont Bar Association

September 28, 2015

I very much appreciate this award! Thank you,  VBA Immediate Past President Dan Richardson! And thank you, Vermont Bar Association! Rich

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What Does the Future Hold for the American Bar Association?

September 24, 2015

Transitions are occasions for reflection. I’ve been a member of the American Bar Association since I was admitted to the bar in 1979, and since 1999, I’ve served in its House of Delegates. This week, I resigned my seat in the House as the representative of the Vermont Bar Association to focus on my duties […]

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Life is Surprising!

August 13, 2015

Forty-five years ago I was active in Gov. Phil Hoff’s campaign for the U.S. Senate from Vermont. I was in high school.  That summer, I had a job as a bell-hop, that did not start until 3:00 PM. I spent every day from 8:00 AM to 2:45  on the campaign. We lost that race, even though […]

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Thoughts on Becoming President of the Uniform Law Commission

July 28, 2015

This month, I experienced one of the most satisfying events of my professional career. At its 124th Annual Meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, I was elected to a two year term as President of the Uniform Law Commission. You can find the official press release here. It is a custom that the incoming President offers a few […]

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Obergefell v. Hodges and the Supreme Court as Arbiter of Constitutional Disputes

July 20, 2015

I was overjoyed to learn that the United States Supreme Court had decided in Obergefell v. Hodges,[1] that the states must allow same-sex marriage. I thought of my many friends and family members who are gay, and what this decision means to them. I thought of my late friend, David W. Curtis, an openly gay […]

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The Model Apportionment of Tort Responsibility Act Explained

June 24, 2015

Last week I testified before Rhode Island’s Special Legislative Commission to Study Changes to the Law of Joint Tortfeasors. Legislation about tort law is a notoriously difficult matter. The interests of the plaintiff’s and defendants bar sharply opposed, and fair consensus is hard to find. Still, Rhode Island is apparently engaged in reconsidering its law […]

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“The Fall and Rise of Lawyers,” Aspiring Lawyers, Law Schools and Bar Associations: Take Notice!

May 26, 2015

On Saturday, CNN published an important story on the status and future of the American legal profession. The story, by University of Tennessee Law Professor Benjamin H. Barton, The Fall and Rise of Lawyers, (May 23, 2015), asserts that sole practitioners have struggled financially for 25 years and that the future looks even worse. My […]

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Wall Street Journal Lifts National Profile of Collateral Consequences

May 19, 2015

Monday’s Wall Street Journal (May 18, 2015), raised the national understanding of problems presented by the proliferation of the collateral consequences of criminal convictions. The print article, published on page A3 of the Journal,  “After Prison, Landing Work is Tricky, Officials Aim to Get More Ex-inmates Back to Work,” focuses on the story of Hashim Lowndes […]

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