Guess What? Atticus Finch Turns Out to be no Moral Superhero, But Only a Man of His Times.

As the Romans had it, tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, and here is an illustration of their wisdom: things that are deemed admirable in the 21st century are not the same as they were in the 1950s.

If you do any reading and, particularly, writing on subjects related to lawyers, trials and the morality thereof, to say nothing of race relations in America, it is now de rigeur to offer a head-shaking comment deploring the startling development that the newly discovered Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, depicts Atticus Finch, the saintly lawyer-protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, not as a moral giant but as an ordinary Southern gentleman who was hostile to desegregation even in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Finch, played by Gregory Peck in Mockingbird, as you may recall, was the soft-spoken, dignified defense lawyer who wore a vest with his seersucker suit in the stifling summer heat of Alabama, and, braving the hostility of his neighbors, defended a black man who had been falsely charged with the rape of a white woman, an accomplishment that made Finch a durable hero of legal tradition.

But now, in Go Set a Watchman (a sequel to Mockingbird) Finch turns out to be, not the moral giant we were led to believe he was, but only a flawed human being influenced by the ideas and mores of the society in which he lived, who didn’t think that Southern blacks of his day were “ready” for full integration into the American majority white society. So what? Which is not to say that we are about to defend the old Jim Crow South. Hell no! But even so, Finch’s critics miss an important professional point.

We — we lawyers, that is — need to be reminded periodically that we represent a client’s interest in a case, not the client as a person. Thus, counsel who defend murderers do not thereby endorse murder, and it is in the finest legal tradition for a lawyer to defend or otherwise represent people who may be despised by the community in which they live, but who still have legal rights that a principled society must enforce at its peril. That may not be “nice” in some abstract moral sense, and a lawyer always retains the right to decline representation of a client whose activities he or she finds so repugnant as to impair his ability to do a good job. But neither is there anything professionally-ethically wrong with a lawyer’s decision to accept the representation and to represent the bad guys. The vice versa is also true: a lawyer is free to represent the position of a moral client irrespective of a redneck community’s hostile feelings. As our sainted USC law professor Vic Netterville explained to us over 60 years ago, you don’t go to law school to learn how to be a nice guy — or a conformist.

So we wish to make the unremarkable point that there is a huge difference between  lawyers’ subjective, personal beliefs and the values of their clients, however noble or morally repugnant the latter may be.

Anyway, that’s what our betters taught us in law school, and our decades of practice have only reinforced that bit of teaching. As it turns out, Atticus Finch was a flawed human being as are most of us. And don’t forget that he was also a crack shot who could dispatch a mad dog with a single shot from a block away, which, one supposes, made him a Second Amendment aficionado as well as a fan of the 14th Amendment, as well as an effective courtroom lawyer who could ably represent a client who was despised by the community.



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