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A novelist, who's also a judge, serves law's dignity very deftly


For a crisp and gleaming moment, Terry P. Lewis held the dignity of the law in his hands. Whatever magic or mischief might later be wrought by the nastiest lawyer squabble in United States constitutional history, Judge Lewis' Nov. 17 ruling defied the otherwise unblemished appearance that every body and soul involved in Florida's -- and the United States' -- crisis of the presidency was totally possessed by naked political and economic self-interest.

The full context is known now by every sentient human on Earth: Lewis is a judge of the Circuit Court of Leon County, Fla. On Nov. 14, there came before him the question of the validity of the Florida secretary of state's ruling that the votes thus far counted be certified and that amended, recounted vote totals be subject to being disallowed. On. Nov. 17, his terse, clear ruling was that the secretary had "properly exercised her discretion rather than automatically reject returns that came in after the statutory deadline."

This was taken as a major, if distinctly qualified, Republican victory -- though within hours it had been appealed to the state Supreme Court. Lewis, 51, is a Democrat, appointed to the Circuit bench by a Democratic governor in 1998, after 10 years as an elected county judge. He was widely regarded as a liberal Democrat in his personal values and, when tested, his judicial rulings.

In all the bickering, that ruling seemed at the moment to be the single human action most surely based purely on fact and principle.

Among the incidentals that the vacuum cleaner of news-gathering swept up last week was that Lewis had published a novel, "Conflict of Interest" (Pineapple Press, 1997, 318 pages, $18.95). With hopes for some insight, I leapt to it. I read it.

The book is what the trade calls a "legal procedural." The central character is a criminal defense lawyer appointed to represent a man accused of murdering a woman with whom the lawyer had enjoyed an extended sexual dalliance.

The lawyer, Ted Stevens, is an alcoholic given to lapses of awareness and is suffering from the throes of an awful divorce. He is far from sure he didn't kill the woman himself. Stevens gets death threats. People lie, double-deal. They abuse each other and virtually every principle of decency. At the end, the truth is found and peace descends upon the land. That kind of stuff.

I am not a lawyer, but in the course of my lifetime I have known more lawyers and judges than any other life form save journalists. For years as a reporter, I covered courts -- from municipal cattle-pen arraignment mills in Chicago to the United States Supreme Court and everything in between in local, state and federal jurisdictions. As a columnist and editorial page editor, I went on visiting, observing and writing about courts for more than 30 years.

I often find myself faced with questions of the authenticity of prose about courts and trial practice. Usually, I hover between appalled disbelief and awkward skepticism. Not with Lewis' book. He has got a good ear, a good eye and a fine voice.

This book isn't High Literature. But it is smoothly professional and precise in presenting the mundane mechanisms of legal practice.

Well beyond precision, Lewis makes the underlying values of truth and human decency rise brilliantly against backdrops of intentional obscurantism and shameless perfidy. In doing so, he weaves a tale in which integrity and the practice of the law can believably be married.

This is no small acomplishment. Does that prove that Lewis is a great judge? A historic judicial figure? Of course not. But it does for me add a substantial degree of credibility.

In my experience, most lawyers are rotten writers. There are two fundamental things that law schools do to the minds of students. One is to discipline aspiring lawyers to write in an exhaustive, ultra-methodical manner, leaving nothing to imagination or implication, allowing no ambiguities -- and thus no subtlety. The other is to train them to the principle of adversary justice, which means that those who practice the law are driven by a single value, which is to represent the interests of their clients -- right, wrong or indifferent.

This makes for complex prose that is devoid of both subtlety and principle. This is the root of all hate-lawyer jokes and and society's historic antipathy toward the profession.

Terry Lewis, in this book anyway, breaks that mold. He gives, for example, a statement of an important responsibility that is routinely and despicably ignored by legions of lawyers on a daily basis. He does it as well as any I have ever read.

Stevens is speaking to his client, charged with murder, in their first meeting. "It's not for me to judge. It's not for me to preach or tell you what you should do. ... There is one thing, though. I am not in your shoes and I don't want to be in your shoes. I am an officer of the court and I cannot do anything illegal nor allow you to do so. For example, if you tell me today that you killed Patty Stiles, I couldn't put you on the stand and let you commit perjury by saying you didn't. If you want to talk hypothetically, that's okay, but once you tell me something for real, it's there."

Sure, that's what canons of ethics say. But in my experience, it is the rare lawyer who pays that the slightest attention.

It's equally rare to find a lawyer who can write brilliantly. These are the women and men who develop the skills and sensitivity to escape the straitjackets of their legal training and emerge with a clear sense of both language and truth. The best of them often, but not often enough, become judges.

Whatever Terry Lewis' future may be as a judge, I do pray he goes on writing.

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