By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When John Edwards the lawyer interviewed prospective jurors, he’d roll his leather-bound swivel chair right to the carved wooden railing of the jury box, sit down and have an eye-to-eye conversation. He wanted to know each individual’s heart and intellect. And during the trial, he always watched each jury member closely. At what moments did a person look bored, engaged, confused? And what was he going to do about it? For a panel that included a real estate agent, for example, Edwards explained complicated evidence with metaphors drawn from the real estate business.
Once, when his junior associate, Mark Holt — the friend I grew up with — called for advice during a trial, Holt started to describe how the testimony had transpired as planned. Edwards interrupted impatiently. He didn’t want to know about evidence. He counted on Holt to handle that capably. It was the jury he wanted to hear about. What exactly had the faces of jury members shown throughout the day?
It took a while for Edwards to translate this one-on-one courtroom magic to an auditorium and a television audience. Because he has, he has a chance to be president. But what is this achievement but the skill of a talented politician, one who predictably defines himself as something different and fresh? That’s a familiar and none-too-fresh claim.
In the end, how much is Edwards the malleable advocate, with positions based on what he thinks most people want to hear, especially if it will advance his career? Does he hold progressive core beliefs that he could marshal into progressive policy?
Edwards’ courtroom victories suggest a positive answer, showcasing as they do his desire to right wrongs, to see justice — in financial terms at least — delivered to victims who’ve suffered because of medical malpractice, a defective product or an indifferent corporation focused exclusively on the bottom line.
One notable case involved the family of my friend Harry Howard, with whom I’d also grown up. Harry’s brother and his brother’s wife had died when the driver of a 30,000-pound tractor-trailer lost control, crossed the center line of a narrow, dangerous road and plowed into their car. Their 4-year-old son was orphaned. Edwards and his team, which included my lawyer pal Mark Holt, argued that the driver was negligent and that his company’s policies encouraged unsafe driving. One reason that Harry’s mother had pursued the case was to send a message to trucking companies. Edwards later noted, “Trucking firms in North Carolina were soon placing greater emphasis on driver-safety training. They were equipping more and more of their vehicles with governors to regulate driving speed. Some companies even abandoned the practice of paying drivers by the mile.”
But Edwards was less encouraged by another response. Insurance-company lobbyists subsequently prevailed on a bill that disallowed punitive damages related to an employee’s actions, “unless that particular action was specifically ratified by corporate officers,” wrote Edwards in Four Trials, his book published to coincide with his presidential campaign.
“Yes,” wrote Edwards, “our lawsuit had sent a message, and that message ultimately was: If you don’t like the law, change it . . . The message to me, on the other hand, was one I’d confronted over my legal career and I’d grown to appreciate: If you can’t help enough people being a lawyer, consider being a lawmaker.”
Ask numerous Edwards’ associates and they’ll tell you they knew almost nothing of his political aspirations or political views before he ran for office. Partner David Kirby insisted he had regular political discussions with Edwards, during which Edwards demonstrated concern for public education and helping the disadvantaged. (Part of Edwards’ platform is to make college tuition free for the first year for every person who is qualified to attend a public college and is willing to work part-time.) Kirby’s account could well be true, but then again, Edwards’ loyal friend is himself renowned as a rhetorical strategist.
Edwards’ legal career was not noteworthy for public-interest law or pro bono work. And while Edwards’ clients were typically sympathetic victims, their good fortune in the courtroom also was his. The firm typically received 25 percent to 40 percent of the judgment as its fee — standard for lawyers who work on a contingency basis. Edwards’ firm would receive nothing for its work in a lost case.
“The practicing of law wasn’t about money to John Edwards,” said Kirby. “It sounds like a ‰ disconnect here, but that’s true. He was financially secure for a lifetime. He could have retired at age 40. He practiced law because of the mental challenge. He was a fierce competitor, and most importantly, he practiced law because he truly loved his clients.”
The size of the judgment in the Howard case, which would support the orphaned boy, was due in large measure to Edwards’ skill at portraying what a fine man Harry’s brother had been. Indeed, everything he said about Harry’s brother was true, and the jury responded. But would the jury have awarded less money to the family of a more ordinary man who died under the same circumstances? Such is the lottery-like nature of tragedy, courtroom outcomes and the caliber of your advocate.
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