John Kindley over at People v. State has named the living lawyer who best exemplifies the ideal of a crusader standing tall for the accused. Kindley's choice? J. Tony Serra. Check out People v. State: http://www.peoplevstate.com
Serra is a legend. He may well be the best people's lawyer alive.
Serra doesn't own his own jet. He doesn't cultivate followers. His caseload doesn't reek of wealth and the well connected. Indeed, there is plenty about Serra that suggests he has feet of clay. He recently did federal time for tax problems all his own. And he's more than once had the government's cross hairs pointed at him.
I heard Serra speak at the Idaho Criminal Defense Lawyers Association annual meeting in 1999. I was somewhat taken aback. He stood in the conference center in Sun Valley talking about Hegel and conflict. Perhaps I was expecting more pizzazz, but he seemed almost disorganized. He mumbled, groped and stumbled through an hour's speech that left me confused.
Later that day, we had lunch at a local restaurant. I am not sure how the lunch was arranged. The entire experience was somewhat surreal. Somehow, I had been invited to speak at the conference as well. My topic was the intersection of criminal law and litigation arising under the federal civil rights act alleging police misconduct. Frankly, I tried for pizzazz and failed; I haven't been invited back.
Serra and I were given some down time together as speakers far from the madding crowd. He's a cheeseburger and fries kind of guy. I was so dumbstruck with awe during lunch that I am sure I made no impression on him whatever: just another kid working the circuit trying to make a name for himself. Now, a decade older and a touch humbler, I wish I had that hour back. I'd like to ask him more about courage and how he copes with fatigue.
I've been blessed with the opportunity to get to know some of the best renegade lawyers of our time: Gerry Spence, F. Lee Bailey (I am will not share what I learned about the O.J. case late one night in Florida over a couple of bottles of wine) and Serra. Serra did not have Spence's charisma or Bailey's gift of gab. As we ate, I struggled with a sense of my own inferiority. This man was a legend; what did I have to offer him?
The impression that I gleaned of Serra in that one lunch was one of bemused humility. Serra doesn't have the answer. He hasn't mastered the technical literature in the last case he tried. But he is well read. He still nurses the philosopher's stone, and he is still a seeker. Sitting with him, I was reminded of a film I once saw of William Kuntsler reading from Camus to a jury. "Now that's balls," I thought, and conviction: Translating the themes of great literature into the quotidian reality of a trial.
I wrote harshly about Serra and my disappointment in him years ago when he stumbled on his tax returns. What a self-righteous prig I was at the time. I am glad Serra is now out of prison, and I am glad he has attracted admirers like John Kindley. In the dark nights of the soul that become the stuff of trial, it takes a master storyteller to chart a course through the wilderness. Tony Serra is such a master. He sets a high mark for the rest of us to try to meet.