Remarks given by Martha Dicus, Bissell Reception on October 21, 2011, Columbia, South Carolina
Hosted by South Carolina Women Lawyers Association at Nexsen Pruet Law Firm
Thank you everyone for your kind introductions. My friend Anne Bryan taught me what to say when you are introduced like this, with so many compliments: “Taint so, but how I do love to hear it. So, taint so, but I do love to hear it.”
For this award, for this lovely event, thank you to SCWLA and its President Liz Zeck, and its officers/board members, to members of the Bissell Award Committee, and to sponsors. Thank you all, SCWLA members, and my friends and colleagues, guests, for coming.
I am in such awe of the people here and didn’t know quite how to properly address it. I am not in the same league with many people here and I feel like when I name off people here and the prior Bissell winners, I sound like I am playing that word game of “What is Wrong with this List?” You give a list of words and all of them go together but for one word: pink, aqua, fuchsia, teal, lilac, azure, bacon. Which one doesn’t fit?!
Here it is more like – important woman, brilliant person, internationally-known lawyer -and then after including Martha Dicus on the list of prior winners, a clown horn blows. But I have readjusted my thoughts and taken the point of view that you all present, and that you all who are prior winners, rather than making me look out of place, make me look like I am in your league. That is how I am going to play my name being on this list!
I also want, in these preliminary remarks, to recognize a couple of people who will remain unnamed but they know who they are. They are several of my friends who pushed very hard for me to receive this award. And to them I want to say, “Thank you.” And I will make it my mission to make sure you each win a prestigious award, with a reception in front of internationally-known people and judges, in a ceremony where you have to make remarks, and I will make sure this happens for you in the month you have lost all your hair. That is my promise to you!
Everyone has been very complimentary on my wig. And people say, your hair will grow back prettier, and thicker, and curlier. But since I have been trying to still rock the dyed blonde look for about 30 years, I always say back, “Well, yes, maybe. But will it grow back blonde? That is what I really need.”
I have been nervous about accepting this award as my contributions are really modest compared to many in this room. Especially when the emphasis is on women lawyers. My interest has been the poor in SC. If we put the emphasis on the poor in my state, I can at least point to 30 years of being a legal aid lawyer or a Public Defender, not a brilliant appellate lawyer who may change the law for many, but just a front line “represent you in your shoplifting case, try to get your refrigerator back” lawyer.
Cam Currie wrote me a congratulatory letter and made me feel more comfortable accepting the Bissell Award and I am going to use what she said to speak a few minutes. Judge Currie said you have spent your life serving the needs of the least of us, and in doing that you have shown young women that it is a valuable, rewarding, worthy, and now very recognized career path. I hope my remarks convey the value of working in SC poverty law and sustain women lawyers in similar fields, and inspire other women lawyers to try my path.
The Bissell Award is the cherry on the sundae. To be a public interest lawyer – a lawyer for the poor of South Carolina – is treat enough. To be recognized and praised for it is more reward than one person should get.
I have a full speech I have given before on the joys of being a public interest lawyer. It takes the Aristotelian definition of happiness, weaves it together with Presbyterian theologian Frederick Beuchner’s discussion of vocation, and then intertwines several Joseph Campbell myths – all done in such a way as it becomes obvious that being a Public Defender or Legal Aid lawyer is the only thing anyone could logically want to do with one’s life. In my mind the speech makes the CEO of Coca Cola leave his corporate boardroom immediately for Atlanta Legal Aid, which, by the way, the Georgia Governor Roy Barnes did. This isn’t the forum for me to give that full talk but let me pull two highlights from that speech and tell you why it is especially wonderful to be a poverty public interest lawyer.
Public defending is such a gratifying profession. Public Defender clients are the most powerless people in our nation. Likewise their family and friends are the most powerless people in the nation. They were born with the smallest slice of the American pie. By the very nature of qualifying for a Public Defender, they fall below established poverty guidelines. They have no access to the halls of power. They may tell us sometimes they are going to write the Governor, or someone they believe to be equally powerful, about this or that injustice but no Governor or Senator I know of, except maybe Jimmy Carter, has really ever received a letter from a county jail and gotten interested.
It is only YOU, the Public Defender, sitting with your client in a county jail looking into his eyes, hearing his story, it is you who is the one person who gets the client’s story heard. And you probably don’t do it in a dramatic courtroom revelation, in a suspense-filled trial like some television shows would have you believe. It is more likely you get the client’s story heard in quieter, more every-day work ways like meeting with the prosecutor and humanizing your client, softening the police officer up by telling the police office your client’s story, or using your client’s life story as mitigation in a plea with the judge. Regardless of how you use your client’s story, you are the one who gets his story out and you are the only one with the ability to make others care about him. That is such a responsibility and such a privilege.
I had a client who was older (not older than me though!), from Wadmalaw Island, and had a long history of mostly petty, all most exclusively non-violent crime. When I was with him, getting his plea ready, I knew the State, as the solicitors are charged to do, would tell the bad parts about my client, so I worked with him on painting a picture of the more good parts, the more interesting parts – what it was like to grow up on a sea island in the 1950s, to leave school in the second grade to work with mother and father on the farm, what the sea islands were like then and the changes he had seen over the past 50 years of living in this unique place. I told him here is what I am going to say, and while, of course, speaking to his current shoplifting crime – but mostly painting a picture for the judge of the life he had growing up in the Gullah culture. My client listened intently to my sanitized version of his life. When I finished he said, like a child hearing a fairy tale, he said softly – “Tell it again, Miss Dicus, Tell it again.” He liked the story of his life with the bad parts soft peddled and the unique parts emphasized. It is the PDs job to get that side of the story out. To be the one trusted with getting a client’s story out is humbling, it is rewarding, it is a privilege, it is powerful. Hundreds of PDs statewide sit with clients in lonely county jails cell, listen to their stories and are given this trust by the client of getting their whole story out to the world, of telling their story in such a way as to make others care about the client.
From one of the loftiest reasons for being a Public Defender to one of the most lighthearted.
It is just an out and out fun job. Philip Simmons, who recently died, was a ninety- something year old nationally-known gate maker and blacksmith in Charleston. He said he started out when he was just a young boy by working in the blacksmith shop. It was where he wanted to be because it was where the action was. Sparks were flying, horses were kicking, carts and folks were coming in all day. It was the meeting hub of Charleston in the early 1900s. As a Public Defender, you are in the courthouse all day. It is the modern day hub of a community’s life. People, events, bustle, reporters, sparks flying. A Public Defender is where the action is.
Along the same line, it is fun because the Public Defender’s Office is a gathering place of new young lawyers and fresh ideas. New lawyers are still excitedly idealistic and enthusiastic in their pursuit of justice. All day in PD offices you hear heels clicking hurrying down the hall and you see people running out office doors with ties flying, saying, “Can you come help me argue this motion?” Subpoenas are being served, alibi witnesses are coming in drunk, offices are filled with clients, witnesses and loud voices proclaiming innocence. Snatches of conversations float between offices: “Mr. Dunaway, you’ve been such a good Public Defender for me. I sure hope it helps you get into law school.”
All this meaningful work, all this fun. And now, I am being recognized and praised for it. The Bissell Award is surely the cherry on top of the already overflowing, delicious sundae of being a Public Defender.
I want to depart these previous subjects and say one more thing. This has little to do with being a PD, or even with being a lawyer. In fact, what I am going to say sometimes is hard to square with being a lawyer. To be a good attorney one is always concerned with what happened yesterday on a case, and with planning for what will go on tomorrow. These following comments are more about what I have tried to do my whole life but what I have especially and ardently tried to do now, facing my illness: live in the moment; enjoy each moment; don’t let regret about yesterday or worry about tomorrow rob you of happiness in the present. My sister, brother, sister-in-law and Rhett have helped me do this very important thing – but it is a very hard thing to do too. But the present is all each of us know that we have.
Many people talk about living in the moment. The writers who write about this principle of living range from the most trite advice givers to the great philosophers to rock and rollers. Norman Vincent Peale writes (I hate to say this; I put him in the trite writer category, but remember, trite can also be true) that you need to live in “day tight compartments.” Rocker Warren Zevon writes, “Enjoy every sandwich.” Playwright Thornton Wilder in The Skin of Our Teeth has a character say, “My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” The loveliest way of expressing this thought is ee cummings’ “Wherelings, Whenlings.” In case you are like me and it takes a few readings of a poem to get it, let me help. I am prone to going, “I will be happy if…” and “I could be happy but for…” Well, let me tell what ee cummings says:
(daughters of if but offspring of hopefear
sons of unless and children of almost)
never shall guess the dimension of
foot likes the
here of this earth
this now of the sky
I wish you all, I wish me, the appreciation of the here of this earth, this now of the sky.