SPIRITUALITY AND THE LAW, PART I By Lisa Spillman

You know you are having a fantastic day when you walk into a retired justice’s home to interview him for an article in CITATIONS and he offers to make you a latte. It just doesn’t get any better than that for this sleep-deprived appellate attorney mother of four children under 10. You had me from latte, Justice Paul Coffee. Bless you.

 Then I drop the bomb. Well, Justice Coffee, the article Wendy Lascher wrote about you was excellent and I certainly do not want to reinvent that wheel. So, how about we talk about, say, spirituality? Spirituality and the law, to be precise. Justice Coffee did not politely usher me out the door. Instead, we had an excellent conversation about the involvement of spirituality with the law and with the practice of law.

Now, there is far too much involved with spirituality and the law for just one article. Thus, if the editors let me, you will be stuck with my writings on spirituality and the law for a while, based on my own musings, interviews with justices, attorneys, and others, and any other information I find out on point.

 So, the topic for this first article on Spirituality and the Law is prayer.

Now for some, prayer and the law might go something like this, “Oh God, oh God, please get me out of this pickle I’m in. I’ll  never do it again, please God.” Or, before oral argument, the prayers might be: “God, please help me not look stupid up there.” Or, “God, please help me not drop this 32-page unstapled outline of salient points.” Or “God, please help the Justices see things my way.”

But for the most part, that’s not how prayer works for me or for Justice Coffee. I learned of his strong Catholic faith reading the February CITATIONS, so I asked him how, if at all, he incorporates prayer, a tenet of his religion, into the practice of law or into his being a justice.

He responded that when he drove a 1951 Chevy from Madera to join the United States Navy Reserves, he drove around Pensacola, Florida looking for an open church, and found a Catholic one. His faith tradition to that point had been largely shaped by his parents, one of whom was Presbyterian and the other was a Christian Scientist. He went into the Pensacola church without really thinking about why he was there; he did not go there specifically to pray. But, after being there, he felt better.

Prayer for Justice Coffee since then, both while practicing as a trial attorney, and as a judge and justice, involves centering himself, usually with a succession of prayers. He does not have a ritual that must be  carried out each and every day. Instead, he prays when he needs to. It has a quiet, centering effect. He does not pray about any particular case.

The same is pretty much true for me. Admittedly, sometimes prayers in my house go like this, “KIDS, SIT DOWN AT THE TABLE NOW. I’VE ASKED THREE TIMES. IF I HAVE TO ASK AGAIN I WILL SERVE YOUR FOOD IN THE GARAGE WITH THE LIGHTS OFF. God, Thank you for this food. Amen.” But usually, my prayers aren’t quite like that.

I remember my first law school final. I looked upon three students, facing each other in a circle, hands clasped. One was leading the other two in a prayer. After that, I sat in my chair, praying before the final as I had done before my LSAT, “God, okay, look, we are all here together trying to do our best. Please give everyone in this room peace. Please help everyone do their best.” All of a sudden, I felt less stress. It was like my brain was no longer focused on the singular objective of the final but recognized the vastness and humanness of people in the same boat. Maybe it was the act of prayer or maybe it was God, I don’t know, but I do know that I, like Justice Coffee, felt better.

So if one is inclined to pray, have at it. If  not, don’t have at it. Whatever. I’m not here to proselytize. I’m only trying to explore spirituality and the law. I am not here to pass judgment. But, Justice Coffee was and so are other judges and justices, so the next topic will explore one’s paid duty to be a judge when one’s faith tradition says not to judge. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be something else. I’ll pray about it.

Lisa Spillman is an attorney in Ventura. She handles criminal appeals and habeas corpus petitions.

About Bar