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William Sydney Porter wasn’t an attorney. He did have some experience with criminal law, spending three years in a federal penitentiary for embezzlement. But it is not his legal experiences that made him famous, it is the short stories he wrote using the pen name “O. Henry.” One of those stories, “The Gift of the Magi” still shows up on television every December.
He did, however, have a grasp of one important legal principle: the importance of every human being, regardless of their station in life. He expressed that egalitarian viewpoint in the title of his book The Four Million.
Not very long ago some one invented the assertion that there were only ‘Four Hundred’ people in New York City who were really worth noticing,” he explained. “But a wiser man has arisen–the census taker–and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the ‘Four Million.'”
Sure, there is ample reason to be cynical about the law. It’s true that large corporations can afford an army of high-priced attorneys to represent their interests. On the other hand, corporations can claim they are being held hostage by juries giving undue sympathy to a plaintiff’s tears.
But no system run by human beings to judge human failings will ever be perfect. The one we have at least does have some balance to it. A retarded death-row inmate is having his case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Jonathan Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” is being represented by Morrison and Foerster’s James J. Brosnahan, who also defends major corporate clients. We have even opened our legal system to citizens of other countries, in certain circumstances, when they could not obtain justice in their own lands.
The world looks to the United States for more than just rock & roll, hamburgers, and summer blockbusters. It also looks to us to set a higher standard in the pursuit and administration of justice.
While we don’t want to become the world’s judges, let’s at least ensure we set a good example for others to follow so that real justice is available for those six billion people of planet earth. Each one of their lives is important.