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Man of the year

Two years out of law school, Norman Minor joined the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office.  He was unlike any other prosecutor who had come before him.

He was black.

It was 1930, and there weren't a lot of jobs for black lawyers.  There weren't a lot of black lawyers, for that matter.  This was 31 years before the words "affirmative action" would first be mentioned, in an executive order issued by John F. Kennedy.  A better perspective is given by the fact that it was a mere 11 years after a black teenager named Eugene Williams swam too near the whites-only beach off Lake Michigan in Chicago, touching off a race riot that killed thirty-eight people.  Not that the prosecutor's office here was particularly enlightened; Minor was only assigned to cases where the defendant was black.

Minor handled more than 5,000 felony prosecutions in his 18 years with the office, winning 13 first-degree murder convictions, then entered private practice and became a defense lawyer in 1948.  He and other black lawyers of the time, and others to come soon after - John W. Martin, Floyd Oliver, J. B. White, James Willis, and the Stokes brothers, Carl and Louis -- gained fame as among the best criminal attorneys to be found anywhere.  (Louis Stokes was the lead attorney before the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio.)  They also mentored young black lawyers, and brought them into their firms.  One of those young lawyers was John Carson.

Every year, the Cuyahoga Criminal Defense Lawyers Association holds a banquet where it hands out its lifetime achievement award.  Carson was the honoree this year, his 49th year of practice.  These functions follow a familiar pattern:  after consuming a dinner of rubbery chicken and oversteamed vegetables, everybody sits around the tables while some close friends of the honoree get up and tell stories about him, and then he -- I can't remember a woman ever winning the award -- comes to the podium, regales us with a war story or two, then thanks us.  Usually, the speeches are short; sometimes not.  I had some trepidation when I learned that there would be about a dozen people speaking on Carson's behalf.

It turned out to be a fascinating evening, on two accounts.  First, we heard from several of the "old-timers," lawyers who were trying criminal cases back in the 50's and 60's.  That was a far different time.  You didn't have DNA and crime labs and blood splatter experts and all this other CSI stuff.  You didn't have open discovery, or even closed discovery.  As one put it, "We lied to the prosecutors, and they lied to us."  The State had its witnesses, and maybe you had some, or maybe your case just depended upon trashing theirs, but both sides walked into court with their skinny files, and it was a knife fight. 

Criminal lawyers can be a rowdy lot, often with outsize personalities, and what I found most interesting about Carson is that he doesn't fit that mold.  You see him all the time at the Justice Center, and he carries himself with such a quiet dignity and reserve that you'd figure he was the partner at some firm doing corporate and tax law.  And that was the second fascinating aspect of the evening:  what came through, from speaker after speaker, was the unflinching respect every person in that room had for Carson.  The incoming president of CCDLA, who introduced the speakers, confessed that it wasn't until this event that he learned Carson's first name was John; everybody, prosecutors, judges, and lawyers alike, simply knew him as Mr. Carson.

There are a number of rewards to being a lawyer.  It makes your momma proud, and despite our reputation, if you're introduced to someone at a party and they ask what you do and you tell them you're a lawyer, they're a bit impressed.  We are a profession, after all.  The money's decent, at least sometimes, and it sure beats breaking rocks or changing bedpans. 

Criminal lawyers are a closed and tight-knit society.  We see each other just about every day, and we know who the good lawyers are and who the good lawyers aren't.  The greatest reward of this profession is to earn the respect of your peers.  John Carson earned that respect, and not by sheer dint of longevity.  He is a great lawyer and an even better man, and my hat's off to him.  And so is everybody else's.


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