Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Conversing with Justice Richard Mosk

     Recently we lost one of our leading jurists, Justice Richard Mosk, and I lost a dear friend.  His professional accomplishments are well known, but I was fortunate to know him as a person.  I spoke in favor of his confirmation to the Court of Appeal before the Commission on Judicial Appointments.  I have introduced him at dinners honoring him and written about his many achievements.  He was Dr. Johnson and I was his Boswell.  
         I wrote the introduction to an oral history of Richard, published in 2012 by the Supreme Court Historical Society. The interviewer is his son Matthew, a prize winning investigative journalist.  Richard talks about his remarkable life that makes the reader want to linger on the page.  In an engaging style, he reminisces about his friendships and acquaintances with presidents, governors, and ambassadors.  He reveals canny political astuteness.  He discusses his many successes with candor and humility‑‑his work on the Warren Commission, the Christopher Commission, the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, Chair of the Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association.  He modestly ascribes to chance his accomplishments.  If chance has favored Richard on occasion, his keen intelligence and extraordinary ability have turned those chance encounters into notable achievements.  If you compliment him, you will hear a barely audible "thanks," and he changes the subject. 
Richard was one of our most respected appellate justices.  His opinions were beautifully crafted and shined with lucidity.  His style was powerful, yet appropriately restrained.  His sense of justice is always apparent. 
        Richard and I met on opposite ends of a hotly contested case about 47 years ago.  From this hard-fought litigation, there developed a friendship that grew deeper throughout the years.  Does that happen during litigation today?  I loved to get his goat by characterizing his client as a large, greedy corporate conglomerate.  I described my client as a manufacturer of environmentally friendly motor homes.  Our clients had entered into a joint venture that ended in a contentious contract dispute that gave rise to protracted litigation.  It ultimately ended well for both sides.
The loss of a dear, close friend like Richard is difficult to bear.  But there is comfort in his palpable and continued presence in my life.  You may have had a similar experience with the loss of someone close to you.  Richard and I still have our discussions and occasional heated, yet friendly disagreements, seasoned by his sharp intellect and wicked sense of humor.
I was preparing my remarks for his funeral when he asked if I intended to discuss an incident that occurred on the flight we took to Detroit to depose an important witness in the motor home litigation.  The flight attendant had spilled a drink on Richard.  That memorable contretemps exposed a facet of his personality.  "Should I mention this at your funeral?"  Richard answered, "Of course."  For historical accuracy, however, he insisted I refer to the "flight attendant" as a "stewardess."  "That was what they were called in the late 1960's," he argued.  He agreed that the word "stewardess" was sexist and offensive, but the reference to a term in vogue at a particular time in history did not imply an endorsement of the term.  “'Stewardess' can always be placed in quotes,” he said. 
I saw his point, but reminded him that I would be speaking, not writing, and that I would be uncomfortable using the word "stewardess."  Richard acknowledged my uneasiness.  But because he would not be speaking at his own funeral, and I would, he opted for me saying "stewardess."  Thanks, Richard.  I suggested a compromise.  I would relate our conversation and express the two points of view.  He found that acceptable and said, "Perfect, they all will think you are nuts."  By the end of the trip, Richard and the "flight attendant" made up.
Our conversation then took another path because it was relevant to the current discussion about how we essay persons and events in our historical past.  Alexander Hamilton's visage was in danger of eradication from the $10 bill in favor of a woman's.  Mr. Hamilton, our first Treasury Secretary, does not look so good from today's vantage point.  The same may have been said during his own time.  Political analyst and NPR commentator Cokie Roberts wrote in the New York Times that Hamilton was "a philandering liar."  She takes him to task for getting himself killed in a duel with Aaron Burr.  His family was left penniless.  Roberts would wipe Hamilton’s face off the $10 bill and replace it with his wife's, Elizabeth.  During Hamilton’s lifetime, Elizabeth stood beside him during the scandal brought about by his affair with another woman and saved his political career.  And after his death, Elizabeth, in her penurious straights, founded an orphanage that still exists.
Certainly there is legitimate criticism that can be leveled against Hamilton by the standards of any age.  Also in the New York Times, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman agrees.  But he also agrees with authors Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong who, in their book “Concrete Economics,” dub Hamilton “the true father of the American economy.”  After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton’s 1790 manifesto “First Report on Public Credit” argued that the federal government assume all debts incurred by the states during the Revolutionary War.  In doing so, the United States was able to establish itself as a national government that would prove to be a reliable borrower.  And, I would add, it helped make our country a strong international power.
Do we evict Hamilton from the $10 bill?  Do we refuse to see the musical that bears his name?  And what do we do about presidents we revere as heroic figures who owned slaves?  Washington and Jefferson, among others, come to mind.  And should we remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton because of his unacceptable views about race? 
I asked Richard for his assessment about Hamilton.  He and I agree with Krugman.  Despite Hamilton’s appalling character flaws, we should keep him on the $10 bill.  He and other great figures in American history were not perfect, but their contributions were significant.  But, without question, we favored booting Andrew Jackson off the front of the $20 bill.  It is fitting that Jackson, a racist, should be replaced by Harriet Tubman.  She was diminutive in stature, but colossal in the fight for civil rights.  She was responsible for freeing hundreds of slaves.  And she furthered the cause as a spy for the Union during the Civil War.  She later continued the battle for women’s suffrage.

I look forward to future conversations with Richard.  I anticipate disagreements along the way.  They keep me on my toes.  And I will let him know if I get tickets to "Hamilton."    

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