Legal History in Song and Dance

The Guthrie’s production of The Scottsboro Boys was everything you expect great theater to be. Heartwarming and heart-rending. Clever, funny, thoughtful, and discomforting. All set to music.

Taking the show in with my wife, though, I also saw something else. Probably because I’m a lawyer, I found myself watching a drama about what can be both tragic and majestic about the U.S. legal system. The tragedy was 8 men and a boy getting railroaded (pun intended – you’ll get it if you see the show, which you really should) by the Alabama courts because they were black and it was 1931. The majesty came from the system struggling to correct itself, if only ever so slowly. The real Scottsboro Boys’ story went to the United States Supreme Court twice, and each time the justices reversed convictions and sent the case back to be tried properly. The tragic mistreatment of those Alabama defendants gave rise to constitutional protections we now get to take for granted, including the right of the accused to be represented by an attorney.

Of course, it’s pretty easy for a lawyer sitting in the audience of a theater hundreds of miles away and decades later to see that silver lining. It didn’t do the Scottsboro Boys all that much good at the time. They still lost years of their lives languishing in jail while the courts tried to get it right.

In that harsh reality is a lesson for all lawyers – even those who, like me, don’t practice criminal law: We lawyers are used to the legal system. We expect and usually understand the reasons for the courts’ procedures, requirements, and delays. Our clients don’t live in that world. They hopefully have much less experience dealing with the courts, and so find all of those procedures, requirements and delays more than a little frustrating. We lawyers probably can’t do much to change the system, but we should at least do our best to prepare our clients for it.

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