Discovering America

I spent last weekend in Pasadena attending a celebration of Judge Alfred T. Goodwin's 40 years of service on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At 87, Judge Goodwin is still spry, and an active judge.

The celebration was organized and attended by Judge Goodwin's clerks from over the past 40 years, from fresh-faced law school grads serving as his current clerks, to retirees. There were 80 or so of us, including some spouses and children. In this way alone, it was a unique gathering.

The thread that bound us all was more than the connection to Judge Goodmin, it was that everyone seemed to be unusually open, gregarious, intelligent, and kind. I honestly believe that has much to do with the guest of honor. Those adjectives describe the man. I suspect that in part, it is because we, both former and current clerks, kind of fall in line with his demeanor when in his orbit. But it is mostly because he chose us. No doubt he made a practive of surrounding himself with people who shared his most admirable traits.

The gathering was even more significant to me for another reason.

At the Saturday night dinner, there was an open mike. Many former clerks got up and told funny stories about their interactions with the judge.

I didn't get up. This must have been the first open mike in 25 years of weddings and other gatherings at which I passed on an open mike.

It wasn't that I didn't have anything to say. Instead, it was that, frankly, I just didn't remember any conversations from 1991-92, when I clerked. My memory doesn't work that way.

Early the next morning, I walked around the streets of Pasadena. As I did, my thoughts about the weekend crystalized. Why, I asked myself, was I so eager to attend these events celebrating Judge Goodwin? From where did this eagerness arise, given that I had left the practice of law in 1996, never to look back, and that I couldn't even remember much about my time with the judge?

It was then that I realised that I don't remember much about my ex-wife either, despite the fact that we had been together for the better part of 12 years. I mean, I don't remember our conversations, what foods she liked, nor any such personal details. But I do remember how I felt when in her presence.

In a similar way, I do remember clearly how I felt in 1991-92 in the presence of Judge Goodwin, working in his chambers. Those feelings are captured by one word: reverence.

Now, as a clerk, I handled something like two to three dozen cases a year. I read the pleadings, and summarized the facts and issues in the form of "bench memoranda".  Not surprising that I don't remember the vast majority of those cases.

But I do clearly remember a few of them.  I remember, because they symbolized a certain dynamic that informed the judge's chambers -- a dynamic that moved me then, and still does 20 years later.

These memorable cases all involved a clash of justice versus the law. That is, the facts of these cases brought squarely into question notions of basic human decency and justice. But the dominant applicable strains of law in those cases contradicted this sense of justice.

I remember Judge Goodwin being a man who valued warm justice over cold inflexible law. Not in a grand-standing, public sort of way. But rather in the quiet, steady, month upon month way through which children are optimally raised, and the way that love between people fosters and deepens.

True justice is practiced in the same steady, perpetual, quiet way. Judge Goodwin's sense of justice is the old, eternal kind. The kind that spans cultures and times, without a shred of dogma or ideology. And this, from a Republican appointed to the federal bench by Richard Nixon.

This weekend, I shared my justice vs. law stories with some other former clerks and wasn't surprised to learn that they had experienced something similar.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps the judge had picked us as his clerks for this very reason. That is, not only were we top students, from the top schools, but we harbored a strong, if inchoate, sense of justice.

Clerking for Judge Goodwin was a powerful, formative experience for me. At the age of 25, I moved to the U.S. from Canada to attend Stanford Law School. My clerkship with judge Goodwin was my very first job in the U.S.

And what a job! Working in the belly of the machine that is the United States Government.

As  a Canadian, I was curious to learn what sort of people populated and ran this machine. This same machine that leaves potholes in the roads, renders the public schools wastelands, and denies people basic essential health care. I had read the glorious history of America and knew of its promise. Yet the present contradictions puzzled me.

In 1991-92, clerking for Judge Goodwin, I discovered America for the first time. I mean, America the beautiful. The land in which government was created to protect the defenseless weak from the ravenous strong. I found that nation in the persona of my first employer.