Monday, December 20, 2010

Is Atticus Finch a Model Attorney?

Last week I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Judge Geoffrey Crawford, Dean Shirley Jefferson, and Dan Richardson that examined the iconic status in the legal profession of Atticus Finch, the key figure in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch has long been held up as a model of the professional practice of law and many have chosen a legal career with Finch in mind as an ideal.

The program sought to examine Finch as a lawyer and the conversation was vigorous. My own view is that, while Finch may well be something of a model, wholehearted, unconditional approval of all that he does, of his approach to law, to its practice, and to the legal system in the racially charged, and racially prejudiced, South of the 1930s would be a mistake. Finch may be a hero of a sort, but the nature of his heroism (if such it be) can only be uncovered once we appreciate the complexity of his character.

Ask anyone who has read the book or seen the film starring Gregory Peck, and you will be told that Finch is nothing if he's not honest. But is he really? When his behavior is probed it becomes clear that his honesty is complex, if not something that he is content to compromise as needed. Recall the scene at the end of the story where he goes along with Sheriff Tate's "story" about the death of Bob Ewell. You will remember that Ewell was killed by Boo Radley, acting in defense of Finch's children. Tate says it would be a shame to subject the reclusive Boo to the publicity of a public trial, even if his defense would ultimately be successful. "Bob Ewell fell on his knife!" asserts Tate. Finch at first thought his son, Jem, had killed Ewell in self-defense. He was willing to put Jem through a trial and was already calculating the sort of defense he would offer. But Tate makes it clear that's not what happened, and persuades Finch to accept the "fell on his knife" version of events. Finch even jumps in to tell his daughter, Scout, that this is what happened, despite her own observations to the contrary -- something that under other circumstances might qualify as witness tampering.

What are we to make of this willingness to bend the truth for the sake of the peace of mind of Arthur Radley? Honesty and truthfulness seem to play little part in this "avoid the legal system" strategy. And, indeed, this strategy is fully consistent with an aspect of Finch that is depicted throughout the book (less so in the film): his strong sense that there is a distinct hierarchy in society, that the Ewells are at the bottom of it, that they are "outlaws" in the sense that legal rules do not apply to them, and that the function of the legal system is to perpetuate the social hierarchy. Early in the novel, when Scout asks why the Ewell children only have to go to school on the first day of each year, Finch explains that law is for folks like Scout but not for the Ewells. Scout has to follow the rules, and in return can expect the protection, of the law; but not so the Ewells -- neither the duties nor the protections of the rule of law belong to them. Given this view of social hierarchy, and of the role of the legal system in perpetuating it, it is no wonder Finch instructs his daughter: "Bob Ewell fell on his knife!"

Finch's sense of social hierarchy appears most strongly, however, in the defense he presents in the rape trial of Tom Robinson. In his closing argument, Finch seeks to persuade the jury that the real guilty party in the courtroom is not Robinson, but Mayella Ewell, the alleged victim. His defense consists in a steady and heartless attack on the victim. He makes clear that the Ewells are "white trash," that they are pitiable when they are not drunk and downright mean, that violence and abuse are part of their everyday life, that Mayella broke the Southern code by desiring physical affection from a black man. He hopes to convince the jury that the Ewells rank below upstanding, hardworking blacks like Tom Robinson, and that it would be a shame to believe a Ewell instead of accepting Tom's story.

This defense should deeply trouble those who see Finch as some sort of liberal hero who runs great risks to challenge the racism of the South. Sure, there is some challenge here to racial hierarchy, but it consists in the attempt to substitute a different prejudice for racial prejudice. "Some people are below the level of civilization," Finch seems to be saying, "and those people do not deserve to be protected in the same way other whites do. In fact, they should not even be preferred to blacks!" Mayella broke the code of good, southern, white behavior -- and in doing so she has forfeited her right to be given the benefit of the doubt in this case.

So Finch's sense of justice is structured by a powerful sense of hierarchy. While he talks about the legal system being the one place in America where everyone is treated equally, all he ultimately seems to mean is that those who work hard and do not challenge the basic structure of society should be treated equally in court. The Ewells do not work hard and they are "uppity" -- they are rude, they do not know how to treat respectable people (like Judge Taylor and Finch himself), they are disrespectful of society's rules and society's leaders. Tom Robinson works hard, keeps his eyes lowered, and tries to be helpful (even subservient) to "white folks." Tom Robinson accepts the structure of society and shows the proper respect for "his betters." The Ewells don't.

Apply a system that treats people equally to a society in which people are unequal, and the inequality is reproduced. Far from challenging the inequality of southern society, Finch seems more bent on ridding that society of its undesirable elements while preserving the existing status hierarchy.

What does this tell us about professionalism? Is Finch a model? If so, of what?