FREEDOM IS A STATE OF MIND
by Richard B. Sanders
(Pubished in The Docket, A UW School of Law Student Publication, Spring 1998)
In the beginning, I also passed through Condon Hall, not knowing what destiny would bring. Twenty-six years later I found myself on the state Supreme Court—who would have imagined?
Coming to the court was much like returning to the law school. Ideas again lived for their own sake. And truth was to be pursued as unrequited love. But, I tell myself, there are things more important than being on the court, or getting high marks on an exam, or winning the case, or making lots of money. Sometimes it is hard to remember what those things are, but they are.
Freedom is. First and foremost freedom is a state of mind. Fame and fortune is often the enemy of freedom because it is too easy to lose ourselves in the hunt to find or keep, while both elude us. Ultimately it is upon ourselves we rely to achieve our ends. But if we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the fear of defeat, defeat will pounce on easy prey. But to grow, to learn, to better ourselves as individuals is not within the power of others to negate. We alone are the captain of that ship. And fortune will find us easier than we can ever find it.
During those 26 years between Condon Hall and the court my personal and professional life (as if there were a difference) lurched from the agony of defeat to the exaltation of triumph and back again, yet always the practice of law was the practice of life to it’s fullest. There was never regret. I was always so very proud to be a lawyer. And the lawyer earned his wage from the client who he helped. What a great and noble profession!
Since I have been on the court there has been time to think. I think I love the court, but there are things I love more.
One of the first oral arguments I heard was on Washington’s "three strikes" law which would send some repeat felons to prison for life without possibility of parole, no matter what the circumstances of the crime nor individual. Sitting in conference, waiting my turn to vote, I thought about a television show I once saw depicting an 85-year-old woman trudging in the snow to visit her 90-year-old husband, as she had done, once a month, every month for as long as I had been alive, as long as he served out every day of his sentence of imprisonment until death. I remembered thinking: How could anyone be so cruel?
But now my turn to vote—eight affirms to you, Justice Sanders—where do you stand?
Follow the law, yes, by all means. Seventy percent of the populous wanted it, probably 90 percent of those who voted for me wanted it. I needed those votes to be here. I will need those votes to stay here. And there was still time to affirm even when my nine-year-old daughter (having overheard a discussion between her mom and me) said, "But daddy you’ll lose your spot on the court if you vote no." But in America cruelty is against the law, and I am thankful. I told her the court’s not everything—daddy can sleep at night and look in the mirror—that’s more important. State v. Rivers (8-1). No regrets except I couldn’t find four more votes.
And then there was Ralph Seeley who was dying of cancer despite his fight for life through nauseating chemotherapy. Smoking pot made him feel better but there was a statute against it. Nobody on the court would slap the joint out of his hand, but nobody would say no to the government either.
Funny how people leave their humanity at home when they hang their hat in the government cloakroom. Is denial of pain killing medication all the legal process due this man? I didn’t think so. State v. Seeley (8-1).
Mr. Well pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to first degree assault in 1980 and has been locked up in the insane asylum almost ever since. But nobody told him the term was life for "acquittal," nor was he given the statutory notice required to be sent to anyone convicted of a crime that he had only one year to file his habeas corpus petition. What was that in the constitution about not suspending the writ? Doesn’t apply you say? PRP of Well (5-4).
What’s being a lawyer all about? Not giving in when you think you’re right? Caring about your fellow man? Standing for something, even when you stand alone? What makes a person truly free and what makes life worth living? There’s a take home exam for the rest of your life.
These are the days when men and women of the law must be strong—for their own sake, and for everyone else’s too. They are especially burdened because they have special knowledge. Rights are slipping away, free institutions are unraveling. Once they are gone it will be all the more difficult to bring them back.
Someone who reads this will someday be on the court, or argue before it. Be proud to be a lawyer. Be true to yourself. Be free.