A news release came winging its way into my e-mail today, pitching an upcoming event. In tone and content, it reminded me of a similar seminar I attended more than two years ago. And it caused a flood of memories—some shameful—to come surging back.

No, not that kind of shame—sorry to disappoint readers whose breath quickened at the prospect of a steamy tell-all, or at least a lawyer discipline mea culpa.

No, mine is more a tale akin to a misdeed of a founding father—the I-can’t-tell-a-lie fella. But more on that in a minute.

The upcoming seminar will be held at the Law Library of Congress (library being a small clue to the shame of me and George W). In recognition of Law Day 2010, the library will present “You Be the Judge: Cross-Cultural Issues in the Courts” (press release below).

Wow, I thought. This sounds great. Maybe I could convince my overseers that a DC journey would be worthwhile for their journo (“Keep mum about the cherry blossoms being in bloom,” I warned myself). But as I read the release, a sense of déjà vu crept over me. Hadn’t I heard this? Hadn’t I attended this before?

Well, I excavated the stacks that “grace” my office space. Shifted aside were the reports generated by SuperLawyers 2006, the legal salary surveys from 1999-2003, and the glossy promotional materials about firms that had been merged entirely out of existence.

Alison Renteln

And that’s when I found it: my file on the ABA Midyear Meeting, held in Los Angeles, February 2008.

The seminar I had attended in the City of Angels had been titled “Stranger in a Strange Land: Cross-Cultural Issues in the Courts.” And in almost all respects, the programs sounded much the same. The panelists were much the same. And when it comes to the promotional copy, let’s be generous and say it was “almost identical.”

Well, why shouldn’t it be? After all, the new program and the old program share almost identical panelists; aren’t they entitled to re-present a seminar? Including the promo language?

Now, full disclosure: Like all writers, I have “repackaged” my own writing for multiple occasions and purposes. For example, portions of this very blog post have appeared as (1) a travelogue on “Pubs of the New American Skid Row” on Globe Trekker, (2) an (online) encyclopedia entry on the history of Cameroon, and (3) a lengthy and not-improved-by-gin wedding toast delivered to the boss of a cousin’s friend, whom I have not seen since.

So cast stones I shall not. I don’t fault the authors for “recycling” their copy (maybe it’s in honor of Earth Day, which we’ll cover tomorrow!).

But the repeated program tells me that it’s OK if I miss a program I’ve already seen.

However, for those of you who weren’t in LA in 2008: This will probably be a great program!

Here’s what I recall most from LA.

All the speakers were great. But of particular interest was Alison Dundes Renteln, a USC political scientist. She also “wrote the book,” titled “The Cultural Defense.”

As the promo copy (from 2008) says, “In a growing number of cases in state and federal courts all across the country, immigrants are pleading the cultural defense—invoking the customs and traditions of their homeland to explain their actions. Even when it is not raised per se, culture plays a role in many cases, both civil and criminal. Does the adage that ‘all men are presumed to know the law’ apply to recent immigrants? Should they be held to the same standards as everyone else, on the theory of ‘When in Rome …’?”

A cause for reflection -- and a great read!

In the LA seminar, we also got to use those coolio handheld TrialGraphix gizmos, where we could “vote” on scenarios. We were living like it was 1999. And when we attendees punched in our results, wow, were we all over the board.

Anyway, back to my shame.

You may recall recent news stories about George Washington failing to return two library books to New York City’s oldest library. His 220 years’ worth of fines would yield about a $300,000 bill. Y’know, the same as a modern-day lobbyist’s monthly expense account.

It’s too bad a few books had to besmirch an otherwise pretty good record, George. But I’m right there with you, Mr. President.

My misstep occurred immediately after the LA seminar. In the crowded hallway at the hotel, a card table bore a creaking stack of Renteln’s tomes. Available for sale, of course.

Typically, I steer clear of the “purchase” tables in favor of the “complimentary” tables. But the scholar’s arguments intrigued me. And so, against all my training and experience, I reached into my wallet for an AMEX, which appeared surprised to be making an appearance.

The young fella tasked with the manual-slide-the-carbon-paper charge “machine” was having a tough time of it. Such a tough time, in fact, that as I walked away I had a nagging sense that he had mishandled the sale. That he had, in fact, not made a sale.

Headlong on my own path toward moral oblivion, I decided not to go back and check. I had a signed carbon receipt in my pocket, and I was late for my SuperShuttle (which I missed). Why call attention to another human’s failings?

Why indeed? As I’m sure you know by now, the charge never went through. I thought occasionally—less and less as the months swam by—that I should contact someone. But whom? The publisher? The author? My priest?

Well, I did none of those things. All I can say is that the book sits there still, staring at me balefully, as bad-ass as any true bill ever returned by a grand jury. “Quoth the volume: Nevermore.”

Of course, the book consoles and teaches me another lesson.

“Your honor, in my defense, my cultural background taught me to yield my spot to the impatient lawyer behind me, and not to return to trouble the harried and likely incompetent young man wielding a charge-card machine like a dull butter knife.”

Oh, the shame. It burns. It burns bad. Word, President George. Word. 

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April 21, 2010

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Multiculturalism and the Rule of Law Subject of 2010 Law Day Program

In recognition of Law Day 2010, the Law Library of Congress will present a program titled “You Be the Judge: Cross-Cultural Issues in the Courts.” The two-hour program will begin at noon on Monday, May 3, in the Mumford Room, located on the sixth floor of the Library’s James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C.    

The event is free and open to the public; tickets are not required.

In a growing number of cases in state and federal courts all across the country, parties are raising “the cultural defense”—invoking the customs and traditions of a diversity of cultural backgrounds to explain their actions. Even when these issues are not raised directly, culture is playing a role in many civil and criminal cases.

In this engaging and highly interactive presentation, audience members will use hand-held technology to “vote” on the outcome of vignettes drawn from real cases and presented by an inter-disciplinary panel of some of the nation’s leading cross-cultural experts.

Moderated by George Washington University School of Law professor Jonathan Turley, the panel will include Rene L. Valladares, chief of the Trial/Appellate Division of the Office of the Federal Public Defender, Las Vegas, Nev.; Dr. Mark J. Mills, M.D., J.D., a renowned forensic psychiatrist and professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; and the Hon. Delissa A. Ridgway, U.S. Court of International Trade-New York and chair of the American Bar Association’s National Conference of Federal Trial Judges.

Law Day is a national day to celebrate the rule of law and its contributions to the freedoms that Americans enjoy. In 1957, the American Bar Association instituted Law Day to draw attention to both the principles and practices of law and justice. President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day with a proclamation in 1958. For more information on Law Day, visit www.lawday.org.

The Law Day program is sponsored by the Law Library of Congress with the support of more than 40 organizations, including the American Bar Association, the District of Columbia Bar Association and the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges. 

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. The Library seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at www.loc.gov and via interactive exhibitions on a personalized website at myLOC.gov.

Founded in 1832, the mission of the Law Library is to make its resources available to members of Congress, the Supreme Court, other branches of the U.S. Government and the global legal community, and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of law for future generations. With more than 2.6 million volumes, the Law Library contains the world’s largest collection of law books and other resources from all countries and provides online databases and guides to legal information worldwide through its web site at www.loc.gov/law/.

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PR 10-84
ISSN 0731-3527