Why I Am A Lawyer (Buck v. Bell)

By , October 12, 1996

Every once in a while, someone asks me why I chose to become a lawyer, and I am usually uncomfortable with the question. We all choose our careers for a wide variety of reasons, and each of us is motivated by an uncountable number of events and impressions.

But invariably, when I think about why I chose to attend law school, and when I think about what I would like to achieve as an attorney, I am drawn back to a newspaper article I read in the spring of 1980, while I was a freshman in college. I can’t find that clipping, but here’s what I remember:

The State of Virginia had discovered that certain individuals who were institutionalized decades earlier had never been told that they had been sterilized. One of those women was named Doris, and she was surprised to be told that the operation she had been forced to undergo when she was a teenager was not an appendectomy. She had later married and she and her husband tried for many years to conceive a child, but they believed that God had decided they would not, and they had accepted it.

As it turned out, Doris was the sister of Carrie Buck, who was famous for having been the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell. In that case, the state of Virginia sought to sterilize Carrie Buck, because so-called “experts” testified that she, her mother, and her illegitimate daughter were all “imbeciles.” In a unanimous, sweeping decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the U.S. Supreme Court gave states broad license to sterilize persons deemed defective.

But no one ever told Doris Buck that she was being sterilized, until a half-century later.

It was a poignant news article, published on a slow news day (Saturday). For reasons I could not comprehend, the story gripped me. Assigned to compile a research bibliography for an English class, I chose the subject of “eugenic sterilization.” I scoured the college library for related articles and books, and I made my first trip to a law library to read the U.S. Supreme Court case.

And I slowly realized something, seemingly for the very first time in my life: the law can be wrong. Even a unanimous opinion by the nine most powerful judges in the nation can be one hundred percent wrong. And somehow, I wanted to fix that. I wanted to step in and figure out why the world could be so wrong.

As I did my research, I learned a lot about how the law had changed, and why, and I was pleased to learn that eugenic sterilization had been thoroughly discredited. A later Supreme Court decision even prohibited sterilization of convicted criminals. But still I was dissatisfied, because it was so clear that something was wrong.

Today, I know what was grinding at me: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that someone could be sterilized only under stringent safeguards to insure that “due process” was honored — it should never have been done secretly, without the patient knowing. And the testimony and evidence should be compelling, not weak.

Several years ago, I bought a book on natural history by Steven Jay Gould (“The Flamingo’s Smile”), to read on an airplane. I was shocked to find that one chapter was about this same family, the Bucks. Mr. Gould, clearly no fan of eugenic sterilization, had done some homework and discovered that Carrie Buck had been sterilized based on the flimsiest of “evidence.” She had been impregnated by a foster brother, and institutionalized not because she was mentally defective but because it was an embarassment to the foster family. Her daughter was diagnosed as being “slow” at the age of two months, by an incompetent social worker whose measure was that the baby was less developed than another six-month-old baby she saw at the same time. And it turns out that this “imbecile” baby later enrolled in regular school and was an honor student (but died from illness in childhood). It turns out that the “facts” in the case were compiled by a “scientist” who sought broad authority to permit eugenic sterilization across the country. And that’s exactly what happened during the next few decades.

In the end, eugenic sterilization was not abandoned because of legal jurisprudence, or better science: instead, the primary reason was that it became offensive when Hitler abused it, citing the false science of eugenics as authority to exterminate millions of people, all branded as “defective.” Slowly, or perhaps suddenly at the end of World War II, Americans realized that it was impossible for human scientists to set aside their own prejudices when evaluating “defects” in others.

As compelling as this story is, it took me more than a dozen years to understand why it grasped me so tight.

Today, the newspaper reported that the Nobel Peace Price was awarded to two men working to resolve another injustice: the annexation and repression of the former Portuguese colony of Timor by Indonesia over the apst 20 years. Oddly enough, that tiny and short-lived independent nation was the subject of another research paper I wrote during my second year of college. At the time, I was amazed that such injustice could be tolerated and ignored by the rest of the world.

In the end, it was not Carrie Buck or her sister Doris, or the repressed people of Timor, but something my own experience that was gripping me: the experience of having the American system of law and justice fail completely.

You see, as a child, I was sexually abused by my brother, and when I found the courage to report it, I found no justice. My parents, and psychologists, and even police, could not decide what was true and what was not (although my brother had molested several other children already), and in the end the abuse even resumed, and after that the abuse was not just my brother but the whole “system.”

A decade later, while I was in college, my brother was finally arrested convicted of abusing other children; five years after that, he was convicted again and imprisoned for seven years. But I found no justice in that; it was too late.

I researched the case of Buck v. Bell and related issues of eugenic sterilization because I wanted to see that in the end, injustice can be ended. But it wasn’t ended: Doris Buck was denied due process and children, and being told after fifty years that she had been lied to was hardly justice. And in my own case, seeing my brother in prison didn’t bring me justice either. And it was those experiences that drew me into the law, and made me want to do something to change the system.

Over these last few years, as I have practiced law, I have learned how unfair and arbitrary the law can be. I have seen lawyers lie, cheat, and steal from their own clients. I have seen judges make bad rulings, and I have felt helpless as I saw injustice occur.

And gradually, I have begun to adjust my expectations of what the law can do, what the system can do, and what I can do. And this makes me uncomfortable. No, more than that: it makes me feel less human. What kind of person am I, if I can shrug off a story about the incompetence of a child protective services worker, or the sight of a judge ignoring the facts and the law to return a vulnerable child in a dangerous home?

I suppose I am only human, and somehow that does not make me feel satisfied.

Why did I become a lawyer? I wanted to change the world. I still want to change the world. But in the end, it is not “the world” or “the system” we must change: it is ourselves. The fault I find most often is not in the law or the legal system, but in the people whose judgement is wrong; and I cannot find in my heart any better tool for improving judgment, except time dedicated to the tasks at hand, and perhaps this is the one flaw in the legal system: it does not allocate enough time or attention to those who encounter it, and quick decisions are often wrong.

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