Last month Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court gave a talk to the Law School of the University of Melbourne, in Australia. Her topic was judicial independence, and in particular "assaults on judges from the political branches." To illustrate her point, she singled out the current Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives:
One powerful member of the U.S. Congress, Tom DeLay, has advocated the impeachment of judges who render unpopular decisions that, in his view, do not follow the law. Mr DeLay, who is not a lawyer but, I'm told, an exterminator by profession …
DeLay has in fact been a salaried elected official since 1978. Prior to that, he did indeed run a small exterminating business in Sugar Land, Texas. This fact became known early in his political career, and his opponents, as well as newspaper commentators and cartoonists, have been having good sport with it for years. DeLay is surely used to the quips by now, though he may have begun to find them irritating, or perhaps just wearying: in the biography posted on his Congressional web site he notes only that he "owned and operated a small business." He certainly took exception to Justice Ginsburg's remarks, though, and issued a spirited rejoinder:
I'm sure Justice Ginsburg does not believe that the judicial branch is above accountability … I also reject Ginsburg's assertion that I am not qualified to offer an opinion on problems within out justice system … I believe that average Americans — not just Ivy League lawyers — have both a right and an obligation to speak out when they see members of the judiciary overstepping the proper scope of the law.
The exchange illustrates two salient features of the United States today: first, that we are undergoing a slow drift towards a mandarinized society run by an elite of law-school graduates who hold all non-legal occupations in more or less open contempt, and second, that resistance to that drift is alive and well, even in the lawyer-heavy U.S. Congress.
To run an exterminating business is, of course, to provide a very useful service to one's fellow citizens, much more useful than the ones most civilian government employees provide. I have no idea whether or not Albo Pest Control, the firm DeLay ran, was successful, and I bet Justice Ginsburg does not know either, but it is certain that without small firms like that, life in the United States would be very difficult indeed. And yet the law-school elites and their hangers-on regard these services with disdain — a disdain so internalized they assume that everyone else feels it too, so that they can be free to opine as Ginsburg did (even on foreign soil). Remember the comment of that other law-school graduate (and wife of a law-school graduate), Hillary Clinton, during the debate on her health-care plan, dismissing questions about the burdens it would place on small firms with the sneering remark that she could not "be responsible for every undercapitalized business in America."
Remarks like this are all over the place now. I took a break from writing this to watch a Fox News discussion about the Marc Rich pardon. There was Democratic strategist Bob Beckel — architect of Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign — laying into U.S. Congressman Dan Burton, whom he referred to scornfully as "a graduate of the Iowa Institute of Auto Mechanics." It seems to me that on any rational scale of values, an auto mechanic ranks much higher than a political consultant in social utility. Why anyone should think less of a man for having learned such an honorable trade is not clear, but plainly Beckel believes we should so think. (In fact, Burton's Congressional bio lists Indiana University and the Cincinnati Bible Seminary. Beckel holds a B.A. from Wagner College, a liberal-arts institution in New York City.)
In Imperial China the social ranking was shi, nong, gong, shang: the scholar-bureaucrat, the farmer, the artisan, and last of all the despised merchant. Some such spirit has always been present here — see the description of Gopher Prairie's commercial center in chapter 4 of Main Street. The partiality of America's ruling classes towards lawyering has a long pedigree, too: lawyers were prominent in the Continental Congress, and seven of the first ten presidents were lawyers. The 27th president, William Howard Taft, was actually made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after leaving office. He wrote: "I don't remember that I ever was President."
It is a curious feature of political vituperation in this country that a president who has been a lawyer is never made fun of on that account, while a president who has followed any other trade is never allowed to forget it. Reagan was scoffed at for having been an actor, Truman for his adventures in haberdashery, Jimmy Carter for his career as a peanut farmer. Yet neither Coolidge, the most-mocked of all modern presidents, nor Nixon, the most reviled, ever had it held against them, even by the worst of their many detractors, that they had been working lawyers.
The power of the mandarins is waxing ever greater now, though, with the vast apparatus of modern government theirs to command. So is resistance to the mandarinization of America. The reason Tom DeLay went into politics in the first place was, in fact, his indignation at the arrogance of E.P.A. bureaucrats in banning a useful pesticide.
There is, of course — this is America — a racial angle. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a profile of Bowie, a suburb of Washington D.C., where an influx of upper-middle-class black people has unsettled the town's lower-middle-class white population. Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that some part of the resentment felt by the whites was due to the fact that the well-heeled black citizens taking over their PTAs and city council belong overwhelmingly to the two most despised professions in this country: lawyers and government bureaucrats. That the United States now has a large and flourishing black middle-class is proper cause for rejoicing; that this middle class is heavily weighted towards government and legal employment is cause for concern. It would be a shame if the great progress made by black Americans this past generation should be vitiated by the perception, among other Americans, that they are the fuglemen of an over-regulated, over-lawyered, over-governed, over-taxed society.
It is not easy to remember now that when America was new, there was a hunger for law and lawyers. Abraham Lincoln, as a boy, once walked 34 miles for the pleasure "of hearing a lawyer make a speech." That was on the Indiana frontier in the 1820s — not a place where the rule of law was very securely established.
And elsewhere that hunger is still keen today. A few months ago I took lunch with a gentleman named Dong YuYu, a visitor from mainland China, where he works as literary editor of a highbrow national newspaper. Now, there is a certain regrettable cast of mind that I fall into in these situations. Here is a gentleman, intelligent, thoughtful, polite and well-dressed, from an ancient civilization with a glittering literary tradition stretching back into the Bronze Age, when my own ancestors were dressed in animal skins. Unfortunately his nation has been kept in poverty and misery for the past several decades by packs of home-grown gangsters. I sympathize, but I do not want to be condescending, and in the effort not to be condescending I lean too far the other way, and find myself harping on negative aspects of America's political culture. (This isn't just me; Henry Kissinger's disgraceful brown-nosing of Chou En-lai seems to have been another instance of this too-earnest determination not to condescend.)
So it was on this occasion. For reasons I have forgotten, I had been vexed by some member of the legal profession. America, I told Mr Dong, was plagued by lawyers. They are crawling into every area of our national life, like cockroaches, nibbling away at all the cement of decency and mutual consideration that holds our society together … Mr Dong was shaking his head. No, he said, you can't have too many lawyers. Oh, I said, but he could not possibly imagine … He was still shaking his head. "No. Don't complain. You can't have too many." I persisted. Did he follow the O.J. Simpson case? That so-called "dream team" … "No," said Mr Dong, calmly but very firmly now, "You can't have too many lawyers. You can't. Impossible. Never too many." I could not budge him on the point, this man from a nation hungry for law.
There, perhaps, is the solution to our lawyer problem. Let's export them!