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Judge stresses legal responsibility

Katie Perry | Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Lawyers and judges should be responsible for their work, William Pryor Jr., U.S. Circuit Judge of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, said in an address to the Federalist Society at the Notre Dame Law School Tuesday.

Pryor spoke about specific historical instances of racial and religious bigotry and emphasized the dire need for lawyers to exert morality in their profession in the first of his two speeches delivered at the University Tuesday.

To illustrate his argument, Pryor employed the 1921 Birmingham, Ala. court case of State vs. Stephenson. The trial followed the alleged murder of Catholic priest Father James Coyle by Methodist preacher and Ku Klux Klan member E.R. Stephenson.

Pryor said Stephenson became so enraged when he discovered his daughter Ruth had converted to Catholicism – thus becoming a member of Coyle’s St. Paul’s Church – and wed a Puerto Rican that he shot the priest three times on the steps of his rectory.

A fervent member of the Birmingham Ku Klux Klan, Stephenson had a deep-seated animosity for Catholics, as the Klan’s discrimination extended beyond racial lines and into the religious realm, Pryor said.

“Bigotry in Birmingham was not only a matter of race,” he said. “By 1920, anti-Catholicism was rampant, and the Ku Klux Klan exercised tremendous influence.”

Stephenson was put on trial and charged with second-degree murder by a grand jury but was acquitted following a dual plea of self-defense and temporary insanity.

Pryor said the case was “rigged” from the start. Four of Stephenson’s five defense lawyers were Klan members and the “old friend” of one of Stephenson’s attorneys replaced the initial trial judge. Additionally, Birmingham’s police chief served as a national officer for the Klan, and most jurors were members.

“The prosecution never had a chance,” Pryor said. “Klansmen in the courtroom communicated with hand gestures … Years later, they ragged the defense didn’t have much trouble [with the case].”

Pryor said Stephenson’s lead defense attorney, Hugo Black – who later served as a Supreme Court justice from 1937 until 1971 – was not a “role model” regarding the practice of morality in the courtroom.

“I do not mean to condemn the career of Hugo Black, but his representation [of the case] and trial tactics were despicable,” Pryor said. “A lawyer’s call is not to win at any cost … The true calling of a lawyer is … tempered by moral and ethical responsibilities.”

Pryor said Black’s tactics were “objectively wrong” when he exercised racial bigotry in the trial’s closing arguments and sought to use Coyle’s Catholic faith against him.

Black said a Methodist child doesn’t become Catholic without someone planting “seeds of influence” and argued Stephenson’s daughter was “wrongly proselytized” by the priest, Pryor said.

Black also “concocted” his client’s plea of temporary insanity, Pryor said.

Pryor said 13 years before the Stephenson trial, the American Bar Association outlined the qualities of a virtuous lawyer and said a good lawyer adheres to the strictest principles of moral law – an obligation shared by many Catholic lawyers and judges.

“Catholic lawyers and judges are called to follow our patron saint Sir Thomas More,” Pryor said. “As More explained before [his death], he died king’s good servant and God’s first.”

Pryor later presented his second lecture, “The Role of Religion in the Judiciary,” to the greater Notre Dame community in the ballroom of the LaFortune Student Center. The forum was first in the Catholic Think Tank series, a chain of student government-sponsored presentations beginning this week to promote the University’s status as a national center for dialogue concerning Catholic issues.

Before his appointment to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in June of 2005, Pryor served as Alabama’s attorney general from 1997 to 2005. The graduate of Northeastern Louisiana University and Tulane University – where he earned his law degree – has also taught at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.