Practicing Law in My Dreams

May 16, 2013

Irving Morris litigated civil rights cases for fifty years before retiring in 2001. His career included over four decades participating in the desegregation of Delaware’s public schools, and his 2011 book The Rape Case chronicles a seven-year fight to set aside the flawed conviction of three men convicted of rape in the 1950s, a case that Mr. Morris eventually won as a young lawyer. Justice John Paul Stevens reviewed the book in The New York Review of Books when it came out two years ago. 

Although from time to time I had thought about it, immediate retirement was not in my plans in the morning hours of September 11, 2001. I had never heard of Osama bin Laden when I boarded the train in Wilmington, Delaware that day, bound for for New York; he determined my future for me. I departed the train in Newark, New Jersey, to take a Port Authority Trans Hudson train to travel underneath the Hudson River to the PATH terminal at the bottom of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. I stood on the PATH train awaiting departure. The time was about 8:45 a.m. Suddenly I heard an announcement to the effect that the train would not go to the World Trade Center but rather would use the 33rd Street Line and arrive in New York near Penn Station. The announcer said any traveler headed for Wall Street and that area would have to take a subway downtown. My destination was the offices of Sullivan & Cromwell at 125 Broad Street, where I would attend the deposition of Emanuel Zeltser, a key witness in the Bank of New York litigation. We had brought the litigation with my friend of many years, Melvyn I. Weiss and his then firm, Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach.

When I arrived in New York and went upstairs and outside, I found myself at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street. I walked to One Penn Center Plaza between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and took the elevator to the 49th floor where Mel Weiss and his firm had their office. Once there, I went to Richard Weiss’ desk in the small room he occupied. Richard (no relation to Mel) was the lawyer at Milberg Weiss actively engaged in the day-to-day work on the Bank of New York litigation. From the window of Richard’s office we looked downtown and saw the smoke billowing from the upper floors of the North Tower where a large commercial aircraft had deliberately flown into it followed by another airliner striking the South Tower a few minutes later.

Osama bin Laden organized the attack, had enlisted the personnel to carry out the suicide missions and accomplished the demolition of the landmark structures with the loss of almost three thousand men and women, including almost a thousand officers from the ranks of the New York City Fire and Police Departments, the first responders, who answered the call for help and courageously and deliberately entered the stricken buildings to aid those caught inside and were thereby horrifically added to the number of fatalities.

I departed New York aided by Richard Weiss who took me to Penn Station across the street from his office, purchased a ticket for me and put me on the 10 a.m. Acela Express headed for Washington, scheduled to stop in Wilmington. The twin towers collapsed as my train sped south across the New Jersey meadowlands. Passengers on the left side of the train witnessed the destruction from their windows.

When I was about six, I narrowly missed being struck by a car as I ran across heavily trafficked Broad Street in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, New Jersey, where I lived behind and above the men’s furnishing store my parents owned and operated. On March 14, 1945, when I was a little bit past my nineteenth birthday, a German machine-gunner opened up on me at a distance of less than ten yards and missed me. My companion, Jack Coburn, who was following me thinking I could lead us back to our lines since I had been with our rifle company longer than he, shot the German. As it was, the Germans captured us before the day was out. We were liberated a day shy of seven weeks later.

Having survived these two previous narrow escapes and now having barely missed winding up under the collapsed World Trade Center towers, I decided to avoid further risks. I returned to Delaware and told my partners I retired.

In due course, I notified the Supreme Court of the State of Delaware, and it accorded me senior status (later changed to Emeritus status). I no longer had to attend Continuing Legal Education courses to secure credits the Supreme Court required of every active member of the Delaware Bar. In exchange I had to agree, and readily did so, not to practice law for hire. Were I to practice, it would expose me to sanctions. And so I thought my career as an active, practicing lawyer was over. I had had a good run; I was more than ready to retire.

But I had hardly embarked on my new status when I found I had not retired at all. Night after night in my dreams I confronted relentless legal problems. I found myself headed for trial with pre-trial depositions scheduled all over the country without time for me to take them. Or I would be in court on trial far from my home office without my papers. Or I would have a deadline to meet to file a brief and had not yet done the research, let alone the writing. And so on. The dreams were nightmares made even more desperate by the thought that the Supreme Court would learn of my practicing and impose upon me the dire sanctions about which I’d been warned should I continue to practice. I had practiced law for over fifty years without incurring the wrath of the Supreme Court for violation of the rules applicable to lawyers. To end my career in disgrace was surely unacceptable. But no solution was apparent. Then, unexpectedly, the opportunity for relief arose.

Upon my retirement I had turned to writing about my cases. In November, 2002, the Widener University School of Law in its Widener Law Symposium Journal (Vol. IX, Issue I), published as its lead article my story, The Role of Delaware Lawyers in the Desegregation of Delaware’s Public Schools: A Memoir. Learning of my article and needing material for a speech he was to make at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision holding segregation violative of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, the Honorable E. Norman Veasey, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Delaware, at a chance meeting at the Happy Harry’s drugstore in Greenville, asked me to send him a copy of my article. I did so.

Several months later, on January 7, 2004, Chief Justice Veasey sent me a copy of the speech he had delivered in October in which he quoted extensively from my article, of course attributing to me what he quoted. His letter provided the opportunity I needed to seek relief from the burden I bore by practicing law in my dreams.

On January 12, 2004, I wrote to him to thank him for sending his speech and for the honor he accorded me by using my article. I then continued:

Writing to you provides the opportunity to make a special plea to you. Since I am retired, I cannot receive any compensation from the practice of law. I have no problem complying with the stricture except in my dreams. Frequently I am faced with a brief deadline, but I’ve not done the research or I have a trial date but I face an impossible deposition schedule with the depositions scattered all over the country. I could go on with these problems but I think the picture may be clear to you.

What I think I need is an exception permitting me to practice in my dreams, wince they are accompanied with the nightmare I am violating my commitment not to practice. I do not need a formal order; a letter granting me the exception will suffice if you find merit in my plea.

I had only a short wait before I received the Chief Justice’s letter of January 27, 2004, with the following pertinent response:

Although I have just a little over two months remaining in my 12-year term as Chief Justice, I am happy to provide you with a complete exception to all rules that may impinge upon your freedom to practice law in your dreams. Please take this letter to bed with you at night in the hope that it will assuage some of your nightmares. 

I waited a while before replying to the Chief Justice; I wanted to see if his letter helped. By the time I wrote to him on April 26, 2004, I was able to report the success of his letter order:

Belatedly, I thank you for your letter permitting me to practice law in my dreams. Although I still have the somewhat nightmarish practice, it [no] longer, thanks to your letter, has the frightful accompaniment that I have violated my commitment not to practice thereby exposing myself to dire consequences. Again I thank you. 

After he departed the bench, the Chief Justice returned to active practice, this time with the firm of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, LLP, in its Wilmington office. In short order he was elected to chair the Delaware Chapter of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Responding in February 2005 to a letter from him about College business, I wrote to update him on my dream practice:

Your official permission to practice in my dreams has helped considerably in that I no longer have the terrifying thought I am violating my retired status prohibition present in my dreams. I still have dreams of associates and clients and cases, but I am pleased to report my dream practice is not increasing. Many thanks again. 

And there the matter rests. Now if I could do something about my war memories which continues to trouble my dreams I might get a decent night’s sleep.