Sunday, January 3, 2016

Remembering Dale Bumpers, "the best lawyer in a one-lawyer town"

Dale Bumpers, the former U.S. Senator from Arkansas, died on New Years Day, and reading his obituaries has made me nostalgic.  You see, Bumpers was one of Arkansas's senators since about the time I was old enough to know what that meant until well after I became a lawyer—indeed, through many of my own early periods of contemplating a career in politics.  As I read his obituaries yesterday (NPR's is here, including a link to a 2003 interview, and the New York Times one is here), I was inspired and humbled.  Following are some highlights.

Bumpers was born and raised in Charleston, Arkansas, population 2,965 (as of 2013).  After a stint in the military during World War II, he graduated from the University of Arkansas and Northwestern University's Law School.  He then returned to Charleston to hang out the proverbial shingle, while also running his father's hardware store.  His parents had been killed in an automobile accident while he was in law school.  This period was recounted in his 2003 Memoir, The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town.  Charleston, in Franklin County, had a population of just 968 at that time.  

Bumpers also invoked that period when he gave the closing argument on behalf of President Bill Clinton, during the latter's 1999 impeachment trial.
Mr. Bumpers said that what Mr. Clinton had done, lying about sex, was typical in 80 percent of the hundreds of divorce cases he had tried. It was not, he insisted, what the Constitution’s framers had in mind when they cited “high crimes and misdemeanors” as cause for a president’s removal. 
"There is a very big difference in perjury about a marital infidelity in a divorce case and perjury about whether I bought the murder weapon or whether I concealed the murder weapon or not. And to charge somebody with the first and punish them as though it were the second stands justice, our sense of justice, on its head. There’s a total lack of proportionality, a total lack of balance, in this thing. The charge and the punishment are totally out of sync."
The NYT obituary by Adam Clymer suggests that it was this closing argument, "by turns folksy and self-deprecating, intense and scornful," for which Bumpers will be best remembered, and it quotes Francis X. Clines' coverage of the impeachment trial:
For all his country lawyer’s eloquence, the triumph in Dale Bumpers’s extraordinary return to the Senate today was most evident after he finished addressing the chamber he loves so well. For it was then that a remarkably bipartisan crowd of senators — of the very judges and jurors of the impeached President Clinton — hurried to his side in the well of the chamber to shake his hand, to hug him, to congratulate him for a defense lawyer’s job well done.
As for Bumpers, in his 2003 memoir, he indicated that advising the Charleston School Board to integrate in the months following the May, 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was "probably the most important thing I did in my whole life, not just my political career."

According to the New York Times, Charleston, Arkansas became the first school in the former confederacy to integrate, with Fayetteville, Arkansas following a few weeks later and Little Rock doing so, of course, only after federal troops were sent in to compel it in 1957.  Bumpers was just 28 years old at the time.  

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