How do you talk about important issues without being rude and boorish?

That was the challenge a lawyers group sought to overcome, and its initial effort was on display last night, Thursday, April 28. And for this visitor, it was a qualified success.

The St. Thomas More Society launched its Civil Discourse Series with a heady and controversial topic titled “The Death Penalty: Is It Moral? Is It Antiquated?”

The first notice I received in late March about the event looked to be in a debate format. It appeared to be two lawyers on one side of the topic “vs.” two others on the other side.

Last night’s program, though, merely referred to them as “panelists.”

That may have been more accurate, as the event was characterized more by mini-speeches than by sharp, concise, back-and-forth. That is not a critique, merely a recognition that the Society is feeling its way toward the ideal format for this original idea.

Those mini-speeches ranged from well stated and clear to meandering and obscure, which is par for the course for any educational panel. But more than once, audience members may have wondered about the Series’ underlying premise: Do members of the public really want to hear from lawyers—on any topic—for two hours? Wisely, organizers did not put that question to a vote.

Given the preparation and effort involved, organizers had to be disappointed in the modest turnout. The venue was the Phoenix auditorium of Xavier College Preparatory. That is a beautiful and stunning room.  But it’s also a very large room, which was only dotted with attendees. Certainly, marketing and communication will be a stronger focus for Volume 2 of the Series (which will be on immigration, co-chair Denise Blommel revealed).

Moderator Ernie Calderón, April 28, 2011

These are just quibbles. In a state that is only 110 days beyond a horrific assassination attempt in Tucson, praise must be given to the St. Thomas More Society, which is addressing head-on a coarsening of the national debate that dismays most everyone (though not everyone). Unlike the rest of us, though, the Society is doing something about it.

The evening’s moderator was Ernest Calderón. His resume is long, but the short form is that he is a Regent on the Arizona Board of Regents, a former President of the State Bar of Arizona, and a practicing lawyer.

Ernie was a good choice for the role. He is capable of a great amount of gravitas when it’s called for. But he graciously set that aside last night, as he sought to cajole, persuade, kid and prod panelists into uttering real and compelling statements on a difficult topic. Clearly, he came prepared to herd the speakers away from the raft of arguments on both sides that the public has heard for years, and toward some out-of-the-box analyses.

He was moderately successful. The panelists were cautiously open to addressing Ernie’s deliberately provocative hypotheticals. That was when the evening soared.

But there were more times when panelists got lawyerly, challenged the assumptions underlying a question, and negotiated terms to lower a question’s stakes. Unfortunately, that led to less illumination than would have been ideal.

Nonetheless, it is still invigorating to see smart people bat contrary ideas back and forth. Attendees were probably unsurprised by the arguments: retired Judge Rudy Gerber on one side reminding us that our use of the death penalty puts the United States in the company of China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen; and Tom Horne on the other side reading at (overly sufficient) length from the trial record of horrific details that occurred in notorious torture–homicides. Although the two positions may not be new, they were gripping nonetheless.

A moment of pointed debate occurred when panelist Alan Tavassoli challenged Tom Horne’s repeated statement that Horne was on the side of justice for victims, which equaled capital punishment as a solution. The AG had reiterated the “Justice = Death Penalty” trope throughout the evening, and Tavassoli finally observed that all the panelists were on the side of justice, which he believed life without the possibility of parole may provide. His question to Tom Horne could have led to an interesting exchange. Unfortunately, that was just moments before the event ended.

Here’s a photo of the distinguished panel (click it for a larger version):

L to R: Alan Tavassoli, Hon. Rudy Gerber (ret.), Ernie Calderón, Bill Montgomery, Attorney General Tom Horne

Congratulations to Ernie Calderón for keeping things moving and even light. (One of those light moments occurred when the moderator asked the prosecutor–panelists whether a prosecutor’s office would use its time better to focus on the costs of justice rather than, say, indicting judges. Without missing a beat, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery smiled and replied, “I can tell you that in my first five months in office I have indicted zero judges!” The other panelists—and the audience—roared with laughter.)

Congratulations also to the panelists:

More photos of the event are at the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.

I’ll provide more detail on the fall version of the Series as it comes available.

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