Douglas Linder and Nancy Levit‘s inspiring book, The Good Lawyer, describes the work of John Doar (1921-2014), who, as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was at the front lines of many of the most contentious events in the civil rights movement. It was Mr. Doar who guarded James Meredith during his first night in his dormitory amidst riots at the University of Mississippi in 1962; who prevented bloodshed by situating himself between police and protesters while pleading for peace three days after Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963; and who, despite death threats, argued for and obtained convictions in the infamous “Mississippi Burning” trial in 1967 (more here). These are but some of the courageous acts by Mr. Doar, who consistently put principle before his own personal safety in his illustrious career.
As the New York Times noted, Mr. Doar “‘was the face of the Justice Department in the South,’ President Obama said in 2012 when he presented Mr. Doar with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. ‘He was proof that the federal government was listening.'”
What was it about Mr. Doar, who also played a leading role in the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, that spurred him to act so bravely in situations where others would have shied away? Linder and Levit survey the literature on three types of courage — physical, moral and psychological — noting that, as both genetic and developmental factors contribute to courageous conduct, training and the proper conditions can help nurture courage by lawyers.
My own scholarship, Moral Courage in Indigent Defense, has led me to similar conclusions. Situating the discussion of moral courage within the context of criminal defense lawyers who represent indigent clients, I explore ways to encourage defenders to resist excessive workloads that undermine competent representation.
This essay, part of New England Law Review’s symposium on Behavioral Legal Ethics, explores the conditions under which criminal defense lawyers for indigent clients can be expected to resist excessive workloads. Drawing from research on the psychology of moral courage, it identifies factors that have been found to correlate to courageous conduct in the face of personal risk, most notably the role of anger, moral conviction and sensitivity to injustice. Applying these findings to the field of indigent defense, it sets out some preliminary ideas about how to identify and overcome barriers to action.