I fail to see why the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit went out of its way to tomahawk Attorney John R. Williams. But there it is in cold print: An unsolicited attack on a barrister whose been a role model and inspiration to a couple of generations of lawyers.
In case you missed it, the court chastised Williams for his "history of lawyering that falls below the minimum standards before this Court and the district courts" in an employment case captioned Cutler v. Stop $ Shop Supermarkets LLC. The Court questioned why Williams did not recommend withdrawal of the action during discovery, and why he bothered to take an appeal because the merits of the case were, in the court’s view, so transparently thin.
There was not much Williams could do in response to this professional assassination. He was given no notice or opportunity to be heard. When questioned by a reporter, Williams stood his ground, remarking that he could not violate the attorney-client privilege by disclosing the advice he gave to his client, or why his client elected to pursue the case to the bitter end. Williams showed more restraint that the court.
John Williams was, and remains, a mentor to me. He gave me my first job in the law, and, a few short years after I become an employee, he made me a partner. I count the dozen years I worked with him as a gift I did not deserve. No one works harder than Williams. His brief bank is the library from which I learned what law I know. And his door was always open if I had a question or was otherwise in need of guidance.
I’ve missed him since hanging my own shingle. It’s no fun being top dog is a small shop devoted to ordinary people in extraordinary trouble. I didn’t realize how good I had it when all I had to do was roll out of bed and try the firm’s cases.
I called Williams after reading the decision.
"What’s up with the Second Circuit?" I asked.
"I’ve never pretended to be perfect, and I’m sure I’d have been a washout on Wall Street, but I’ve always tried to do my best for the sorts of people the system tends to leave behind," he said. He sounded tired. "Nobody has more respect than I do for the federal courts, which in many difficult times have been a bulwark against abuses of power; but in the final analysis a lawyer’s duty is to honor the wishes of his or her clients above currying favor from powerful judges."
I have a chip on my shoulder in this case. Had a lawyer written a brief taking a gratuitous slap at a judge similar to what the Second Circuit did to Williams, odds are there would be a disciplinary proceeding convened. We are, after all, officers of the court. What makes it permissible for a court one step removed from the United States Supreme Court to play Star Chamber with the reputation of a litigator?
Williams knows a truth lifetime appointees can choose to ignore: The world is far from a reasonable place. People come to a lawyer’s office because they are afraid, because their hearts have been broken, because they want to be heard. They pursue justice as they conceive justice to be, leaving to their lawyers the often impossible task of translating a client’s idiosyncratic view of the good, true and beautiful into terms a judge will both understand and recognize. We hold the courts open to all out of a recognition that whatever failings the judiciary may have, it is superior to the raw violence of street justice.
But there’s something raw and sinister about the Second Circuit’s potshot at Williams. It is unseemly, even undignified, and patently unfair. I register my dissent here today. The Circuit’s scorn was improvidently and unfairly applied. People in trouble should still call John Williams.