Panel Explores How We Select Judges, How Public Responds

Nashville Civility Forum 2012

Memphis lawyer and former TBA President Bill Haltom (left) moderated the Civility and the Courts program at Lipscomb University in Nashville. (Photos by Liz Todaro)

NASHVILLE, Oct. 17, 2012 — “There’s a misconception that civility is regarded as a weakness,” Memphis lawyer Bill Haltom said in kicking off Tuesday night’s Civility Forum at Lipscomb University. Civility, he said, is not a weakness but “a cornerstone concept that includes a healthy respect for others’ points of view.”

A panel of three experts discussed civility in the courts in the second of three forums. Panelists were the Hon. Lyle Reid, retired chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court; Frank Sutherland, former editor of The Tennessean; and Phyllis Hildreth, academic director at the Institute for Conflict Management and adjunct professor at Lipscomb University. Haltom, a former TBA president, moderated. The event was sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association, the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and Lipscomb University.

 “The purpose of the law is not to favor any one person,” Reid told the group, “but to lay down the rules [and to say] this is how you are going to play.” Incivility in the courts concerns Reid, though, especially that choosing judges has become what he calls “a political mechanism.”  He said our legal system is strong but he is worried that it might not be able to withstand the “abuse” it is under now. “The system of law is so terribly fragile. It would scare you to death if you knew just how fragile.”

Merit selection though, Reid said, “is about as good a compromise between accountability and independence as we can get.”

Sometimes incivility comes from misunderstanding, Sutherland said, explaining that with newspapers’ budget cuts, a “beat reporter” is rare anymore, so that fewer reporters understand the legal system. He recalled how when he was a young journalist on the court beat, Nashville lawyer Jim Neal would meet with reporters after a day in court, explaining to them off the record what had transpired and why.

“The best lawyers have no problem with civility,” Sutherland said. “I don’t recall him [Neal] ever raising his voice. He was prepared. He was not highly emotional and showed no disrespect.”

But lawyers are often portrayed in fiction in ways that are not respectful, a model that Hildreth pointed out did not help people respect the system itself.

“It’s our responsibility. It’s on us to give young people a different vision of who we (as lawyers) are,” Hildreth, who is also a lawyer, said. She stressed the need to include young people because “we are having a 20th century conversation about a 21st century problem.”

As an expert on conflict management, she gave some advice on dealing with others in tense situations. “We can separate our emotions. Set that aside from what we know and what we think.”  She suggested thinking of it this way: “I don’t know what they need to do, but I know what I need to do. It starts with ourselves.”

Congressman Jim Cooper, who is also a lawyer, spoke briefly and put it in perspective. “The Judicial Branch is an island of civility, compared to what we do in the legislature,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way to resolve our differences.”

Learn more about the Nashville program and about the statewide Civility Initiative.

Nashville Civility Forum 2012

Retired Tennessee Chief Justice Lyle Reid makes a point during the panel discussion.
Nashville Civility Forum 2012

TBA President Jackie Dixon with BillHaltom.
Nashville Civility Forum 2012

Phyllis Hildreth, academic director of the Institute for Conflict Management at Lipscomb University spoke of the need to involve younger people in the civility dialogue.
Nashville Civility Forum 2012

Congressman Jim Cooper (center) with former Tennessean editor Frank Southerland (left) and the First Amendment Center's Gene Policinski.
Nashville Civility Forum 2012

Bill Haltom with Nashville attorney and TBA Board Member James Crumlin.