While May 1 was Law Day in the United States, Chief Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the U.S. Southern District of Georgia said we Americans should remember that every day is a day of law in this country. There would be anarchy without it.
I had the privilege of following Wood on a program in Savannah a couple of weeks ago, and I have never heard anyone explain our system of law better or with more passion than she did. When it was my turn to speak, I felt like Tiny Tim and his ukulele following Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.
Wood was appointed to the federal court by President George W. Bush and approved by the U.S. Senate in 2007. In 2010, she was named chief judge. Prior to that, she had been a U.S. attorney and a magistrate judge in Brunswick and in private practice there.
I stopped by her office to tell her how impressed I was with her speech and to assure her I don’t do lawyer jokes. Never. (Well, OK, there is the one story about the lawyer who ...)
What I got out of the visit was a marvelous tutorial on the role of our legal system within the framework of our democracy from a remarkable individual who shatters the stereotypes you may have of imperious judges who seem out-of-touch with reality. Wood immediately puts you at ease, laughs a lot (but not at lawyer jokes) and talks enthusiastically about her family. She is married to a retired FBI agent and has 10-year-old twins.
But don’t let her laid-back manner and easy-going persona fool you. For one thing, she is brighter than a new penny, having graduated summa cum laude from both the University of Georgia and from the UGA Law School.
“I’m a double dawg,” she declared proudly.
Observers say she runs a tight but polite courtroom. She doesn’t deliver speeches to those on trial or to the juries.
“I just talk to them,” she said. “If I am sentencing someone, I want to look the person straight in the eye and tell them what the sentence is and why. I want to make sure they understand the rights they are giving up.”
She rarely, if ever, excuses potential jurors from service.
“I want every case to have a jury of one’s peers, not just a group of people who had nothing better to do that day,” Wood said. She noted that the U.S. Constitution specifically mentions the jury system, and she said it is the most fundamental part of democracy.
“The jury system is the ultimate check on the executive and legislative branches of government,” Wood said. “The jury gets the last say-so. Twelve people voting their collective view and they always seem to get it right.”
I had to ask her about her disapproval of lawyer jokes.
“We may have earned the jokes through the behavior of a minority of folks,” Wood said, “but when lawyers go bad and hurt our citizens, this strikes our system of law a mighty blow — and that’s not funny.”
Wood was at her most eloquent when she talked about “the majesty of the law,” which she said is evident in the “plain, old, everyday cases,” not necessarily the high-profile ones that come along every few years and dominate the headlines.
Of course, we don’t always agree with or understand some of the decisions coming out of courts, but until someone comes up with a better system than the framers of the U.S. Constitution — and I suspect no one ever will — Wood thinks our legal system serves us well.
“The courtroom is where people can potentially lose their freedom, their money and sometimes even their lives,” she said. “To come into court and see people speaking for other people; witnesses swearing to tell the truth and doing it; citizens taking time away from what they might otherwise be engaged in to sit as a group and carefully determine the fate of their fellow citizens; to see the principles of the Constitution applied every day in neighborhoods and towns all over America to resolve disputes without violence — that is the majesty of the law.”
I am glad I went to see Wood. That was a good Law Day lecture from someone who knows what she is talking about and given to someone who badly needed to hear it. And that’s no joke.
You can reach Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.