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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

May is the month for speeches II

Last week I said that I would continue with the speeches at two more year-end luncheons. Here goes.

I’m not a lawyer, but I went to the Hillsborough Country Bar Association’s event as the guest of Betty Castor. Along with honors for lawyers, the Bar Association gives an annual award to a non-lawyer whose work has enhanced respect for law and justice. Betty was this year’s winner, and my husband and I sat at a table with her and her husband, Sam Bell, as well as Jan and Bill Platt; Jan won previously. Both Sam and EJ Salcines, who sat at the head table, were celebrating their 50th anniversary of admission to the Bar. It was wonderful to see the dozens of female lawyers and judges and connect that to the early 1970s: back then, I could count Tampa’s female attorneys on one hand, and no women were judges.

Kathy Betancourt, another non-attorney who probably has spent more time with law-making bodies in Tallahassee and Washington than any other Tampan, also was there. As the speeches were going on, Kathy picked up the bookmark that was at each of our tables, scanned it, and mouthed to me: “Here’s a column for you.” She’s right.

The backside of the laminated bookmark was the oath that attorneys take when they begin their careers. The introductory paragraph said, “The general principles which should ever control the lawyer in the practice of the legal profession are clearly set forth in the following oath of admission to the Bar, which the lawyer is sworn on admission to obey and for the willful violation of which disbarment may be had.”

Lawyers and judges then stood up and took or re-took the oath. It’s long, and they read from their bookmarks paragraph by paragraph. The first three sentences are expected boilerplate, but it went on to be far more complex than any oath I know.

“I do solemnly swear:

“I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida;

“I will maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers;

And then it gets seriously specific:

“I will not counsel or maintain any suit or proceedings which shall appear to me to be unjust, nor any defense except such as I believe to be honestly debatable under the law of the land;

“I will employ for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to me such means only as are consistent with truth and honor, and will never seek to mislead the judge or jury by any artifice or false statement of fact or law;

“I will maintain the confidence and preserve inviolate the secrets of my clients, and will accept no compensation in connection with their business except from them or with their knowledge or approval;

“To the opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications;

“I will abstain from all offensive personality and advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness, unless required by the justice of the cause with which I am charged;

“I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay anyone’s cause for lucre or malice. So help me God.

There’s a lot to think about in that. Someone put a great deal of effort into creating so detailed an oath. Parts of it come close to contradictory – “I will preserve the secrets of my clients,” as well as “I will not maintain any suit which shall appear to me to be unjust.” That’s a very delicate balancing act, particularly for public defenders charged with giving the best possible representation for people who appear to be the scum of the earth.

And that’s just one of many potential pitfalls between the lines of laws. Ditto re “advancing no fact prejudicial to the reputation of a party or witness.” Exactly how does a lawyer arrive at the truth, especially in criminal cases, without damage to reputations? And delay. In Florida’s overcrowded and under-funded judicial system, it’s often hard to determine if continual continuances may be due to lawyers who are paid by the hour and thus have an incentive to drag out the case – employed by people who prefer delay to conviction. Most delays are because we don’t fund the court system properly, but it’s hard to say for sure that some cases aren’t deliberately drawn out to benefit a law firm or to help a lawbreaker evade the consequences of his crime.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone being disbarred for creating deliberate delay, but we regularly read of disbarment for those who “accept compensation” without the “knowledge or approval” of clients. This is especially true in Florida, where many lawyers have access to the funds of elderly clients. The Bar Association often pulls licenses from such, but again, these issues can be complex and fairness difficult to achieve. I’m grateful for good people in the legal profession who work daily to make real the oath’s lofty goals.

* * *

The keynote speaker at that lunch was Dr. Joyce Hamilton-Henry of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She began by reminding the audience of 2011’s Florida House Bill 1355, dubbed “the voter suppression law.” It had several aspects that discouraged voting, but the most important to the League of Women Voters and other civic organizations was that volunteer registrars had to turn in the cards they collected within 48 hours or potentially face files of $1,000 per card. Florida’s League stopped the voter registration drives they had done for decades, and the ACLU took it to court and won. After reviewing that victory, Dr. Hamilton-Henry spoke to what she considers Florida’s most serious voting rights violation currently. Most other states automatically restore voting rights when a felon has served his sentence and is released from prison, but Florida does not. Instead we have the not only the highest number, but also the highest percentage of disenfranchised citizens in the nation: more than 1.5 million people, or 10.4% of our voting-age population.

The practice of permanently disenfranchising former felons began in the days after slavery and is clearly race-based. The rate of disenfranchisement is twice as high for blacks compared with whites, as one in five African Americans of voting age has lost the right to vote, even after paying his debt to society. The only way to get the right restored in Florida is to appeal for gubernatorial clemency – and the wait for such paper processing now averages at least seven years! It has taken up to twelve years for some applicants.

No wonder people can become cynical about democracy. Even our international neighbors are noticing. The UN Human Rights Committee, meeting in Geneva last March, “reiterated its concern about the persistence of [America] state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities, and the lengthy and cumbersome state voting restoration procedures.”

The good news is that our own Julieanne Holt, who performs daily miracles in her position as Public Defender, has created a brochure to inform individuals before they plead guilty that if they do, they will lose civil rights. That’s at least a beginning, but if we want to get over our reputation as FloriDUH, we must address this unfairness. You can see what a statistically valid argument the reformers have by looking at the numbers: the entire nation has 5.8 million disenfranchised people, and Florida accounts for 1.5 million of them.

* * *

Last lunch report: the League of Women Voters had an overflow crowd at the Tampa Club. Even with additional tables that were nearly outside of the room, latecomers had to search for a seat, and the poor waiters could barely do their job between chairs.

The League honored the late Judge Don Castor with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Because I’ve written of him before, I’ll only say that his widow, Mickey Castor, and all three of his children – Congresswoman Kathy Castor, State Representative Karen Castor Dentel, and Palm Beach Judge Frank Castor – were there. The League’s other annual honor, the Sydney and Thalia Potter Civic Leadership Award, went to Evangeline (Vann) Best.

Born in Belmont Heights, Vann benefited from older brothers who sent part of their military allotments home each month so that their younger sisters could go to college. In 1965, she graduated from an historic black college, Saint Augustine in Raleigh, North Carolina, and returned to Tampa for a lifetime as an educator and community activist. Hillsborough’s schools still were not integrated in 1965 – despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling on that – and Vann helped implement that and other civil rights law. She co-founded that East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership and organizations to help bring people out of poverty. Although her leadership style is not at all a “look at me” approach, influential people noticed her grass-roots work, and the Tampa Police Department, USF, the NAACP, and other organizations have honored the work of Vann Best.

* * *

Final word. I’m going to eastern Europe soon and would welcome input from anyone whose families came from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, or Poland. I’d like to hear their stories. Just send me a note: doris@dweatherford.com.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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