Butner, North Carolina
-- President Barack Obama stood before a federal prison today and announced that he was nominating an unknown 42-year-old lawyer as the next justice of the Supreme Court, replacing retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
"I promised hope when I asked for your trust during the last election. And you heard me. Together we transformed hope into a new and audacious reality. Today I redeem a part of my promise by naming a man who is no stranger to the suffering of ordinary Americans as the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court," the president said.
When the nominee stood to address the assembled press corps, there was an eerie silence. The man was on no short list of candidates. Indeed, he was a man few present had ever considered.
"I am flattered and humbled by this honor, Mr. President," Gerry Darrow said. "In all my years at the bar, I never dreamed that I would be considered for such a post. I've represented folks at the margins of society for so long, I had begun to think of myself as an outcast."
Thus began the improbable confirmation battle of a former plaintiffs' lawyer turned mid-life public defender.
Court watchers and legal academics were stunned by the nomination.
"Who?," said Laurence Tribe of the Harvard Law School. Even the Republican Party was stunned into momentary silence. "The man's an unknown, a cipher," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "We will, of course, have questions for him. Many questions." A spokesman for the Federalist Society questioned Darrow's credentials: "He didn't even graduate from a top-tier law school? Has he ever clerked for a federal judge?"
Darrow spoke with reporters after the press conference. Like his namesake Clarence Darrow, he is plainspoken, even blunt.
"My parents wanted me to be a lawyer," he said. "They figured with the last name Darrow, I'd have a pretty good start." He chuckled with the warmth of a man accustomed to mirth. "Of course, we're no relation. It was just dumb luck they named me Gerald," he said. "But once Gerry Spence's name went up in light, well, I knew the law was for me."
Darrow graduated in the middle of his law school class at the Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, and went on to become a personal injury lawyer in the Detroit firm of Michigan legend Geoffrey Feiger. His father worked on the assmblyline at Chrysler before succumbing to a heart attack two years before Darrow was graduated from college. His mother worked as a clerk at Blue Cross and Blue Shield. He enjoyed early and spectacular success as a trial lawyer, winning multi-million dollars against the auto industry and insurance companies. But after ten years of civil work, he had an epiphany.
"There's only so much money necessary to keep a roof over your head. I woke up one morning and didn't like the man looking back at me in the mirror. So I sold the Audi and applied for a job as a public defender," he said. "I was also divorced from my wife. It still hurts to think about that and the pain I caused my kids." He eventually landed in New Britain, Connecticut, in a community court serving an economically distressed community. "My bankruptcy helped knock the false pride out of me. I know human need and fear," he said.
Darrow remarried six years ago. His wife is a state police officer. "Passion makes strange bedfellows," he chuckled.
For the past seven years, Darrow has defended "more people than I can recall" in cases ranging from murder, child sexual abuse, drug sales and bank robbery to minor offenses such as promoting prostitution. "I'm more comfortable with folks like the ones I grew up with," he said. "I'd like to try my hand at white collar defense, but that work doesn't come to a public defender."
Darrow is an only child who graduated Detroit's Edwin Denby High School in 1986. He played football and worked part-time sweeping factory floors in high school before attending Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. "I really wanted to go to University of Michigan, but I didn't have the grades," he said. "I did pretty good in law school, though. And I love the courtroom."
An administration spokesman acknowledged that Darrow was an unconventional choice for the high court.
"The president had his pick from an extremely talented group of academics and appellate court judges," one source said on condition of anonymity. "But he promised change. He wanted a nominee who shared the same rough edges most Americans live with each and every day. As we were vetting candidates we came to the depressing realization that all these folks looked the same. The president wanted to leaven the Court with a person ordinary Americans would appreciate."
The Detroit Free Press once referred to Darrow as "brilliant and audacious" for his trial work on behalf of prisoners in the Wayne County jail. He is reported to have tried in excess of 150 cases to a verdict. He has argued scores of appeals in state and federal courts.
"The man knows his way around a courtroom," said Salmon Penderton, of the Connecticut Bar Association. "He is respected and admired by almost everyone in the criminal justice system. Sure, he's rubbed some folks the wrong way. But he's the guy they call when trouble comes."
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, promised to give Darrow a fair hearing.
"We know nothing about the man, but I hear he is a capable lawyer. Perhaps that's all that is required. It could be refreshing to have a nominee unencumbered by commitments to legal interest groups." Leahy promised a prompt confirmation hearing.
Darrow seemed nonplussed by the furor with which his nomination was met.
"Sure, I want the job," he said. "But if it's not mean to be, it's not meant to be." He then removed his sports coat and entered the Butner Federal Medical Center, a federal prison, to visit a client committed there for the purposes of being restored to competency. "This is where the law lives," he said, as he entered the prison door. "I wonder if I can make what I see here a reality for the other justices."