Legally Speaking: Happy Anniversary,' Legally Speaking'

John G. Browning Feb. 8, 2011, 5:00am

Today's column marks—drumroll please— the sixth anniversary of my first "Legally Speaking" column. Yes, it's hard to believe, but nearly six years ago to the day, the very first "Legally Speaking" column ran in the Rockwall County Herald Banner.

For those readers who have followed "Legally Speaking" in other media outlets, a bit of clarification is in order. "Legally Speaking" may have run continuously in the Rockwall paper for six years now, but its tenure in other publications varies.

After gaining a following in Rockwall and other Herald Banner publications, the column spread gradually to other outlets including Dallas' Daily Commercial Record and, newspapers in communities like Athens and Sunnyvale, and as far south as the Beaumont-based Southeast Texas Record.

"Legally Speaking" columns have also been reprinted with permission in numerous publications, picked up occasionally by national wire services, by papers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and even quoted by newspapers as far away as India and by the United Kingdom's The Guardian. So, wherever you are when you're reading "Legally Speaking," thank you.

How did it all begin? It all started when the Rockwall County Herald Banner was looking for columnists to contribute pieces about what they knew, or a hobby or interest. A couple of individuals responded with regular columns about subjects ranging from wine to astronomy, and I began a column about, well, law. At first, I thought that people might send in their questions and that this might wind up taking the form of a legal advice column.

But while I've fielded a lot of requests for free legal advice since "Legally Speaking" took off, the lack of questions at first meant I had to come up with something. So I seized upon the opportunity to write about legal issues and developments that might be of importance or interest to the average person on the street—changes in the law, new statutes, recent decisions, trends, unusual or funny lawsuits, or even the legal questions raised by current events.

But I wanted my column to be different. I wanted it to be free of legalese, to be informative, and hopefully even entertaining at times. My goal was to do what I do in the courtroom: to take an issue that may be complex and make it understandable for non-lawyers. I also wanted to cover legal issues that were either ignored or reported on poorly by other members of the press—journalists lacking in legal training or experience who either failed to grasp the import of a ruling or who attributed too much significance to routine, easily-explained developments.

That meant taking on some issues that had been overlooked, ignored, or underanalyzed. Sometimes, that's meant examining candidates for judicial office and their qualifications, an area of obvious importance to voters and one which the media covers inadequately if at all.

One of my early columns, "The Sins of Our Fathers," mentioned the debate over stem cell research and questioned how quickly people were putting their faith in the purported improvements to the human race through science. It attempted to put it into historical perspective by taking a look back at the eugenics fervor of the early 20th century, when "scientists" convinced the masses and even the U.S. Supreme Court that society could be bettered by forcible sterilization of those it deemed "unfit."

Only when Nazi Germany embraced a horrifically similar philosophy did America's flirtation with eugenics wane, but not before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the chilling words, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough" in justifying the state's authority to take away a person's right to procreate.

That column provoked readers and critics alike, winning awards like the Clarion Award from the Association of Women in Communications and the Philbin Award for Excellence in Legal Reporting.

I've written about issues that are important, and some events that people would rather forget. In "Our Legacy of Shame," I wrote about the lynching/burning at the stake of an African-American man in 1909 in tiny Rockwall, and what our reaction to that atrocity can teach us about race relations.

The column won numerous awards, including another Philbin Award and the Houston Press Club's Lone Star Award for outstanding commentary/criticism in a newspaper; judges called it a "top-notch mix of reporting and commentary," and a "compelling story, well told, with contemporary resonance." I've written about issues like animal cruelty and domestic violence, and my columns were cited by animal welfare groups, family violence experts, and legislators in considering legislation that would expand the scope of domestic violence protective orders to encompass four-legged members of the family.

An unabashed animal lover, I used the death of my little "daddy's girl," my terrier mix Bo, as a platform to comment on efforts in many states to view the death of pets as not the loss of property, but as the loss of a member of the family worthy of more than a token amount of damages.

The recognition that comes with awards is nice, and "Legally Speaking" has won a lot of them. "Legally Speaking" has been honored with four Philbin Awards, four straight Lone Star Awards from the Houston Press Club, the Texas Press Association Award for outstanding newspaper column, the Press Club of Dallas' Katie Award for best specialty reporting, and many others.

It's been recognized with awards from regional organizations like the Press Club of Southeast Texas, the Press Club of North & East Texas, and the Texas Community Newspaper Association. It's won national awards like the Clarion Award, the Suburban Newspaper Association Award for best newspaper column, and in 2008 it became the first newspaper column to be honored with the prestigious Burton Award for Distinguished Achievement in Legal Writing (a distinction it would also receive in 2009).

"Legally Speaking" has also been recognized by particular groups, like the Humane Societies of the United States with its Genesis Award and the State Bar of Texas with its "Stars of Texas Bars" award for best series of articles and best feature article about legal issues and the legal system.

I've had judges and lawyers from all over the country write thanking me for "Legally Speaking" columns that focused attention on issues like threats to the integrity of the judiciary, lawyers and depression, the importance of jury duty, and the crisis of funding legal services to the poor. But accolades from journalism competitions, praise from Supreme Court justices, or even seeing my columns cited in national legal blogs aren't what touches me most. It's hearing that these columns have made a difference in someone's life.

After I wrote my column on the struggle for compensation for first responders at Ground Zero after 9/11, it was nice when it won a couple of journalism awards. But it meant so much more when I heard from lawyers for many of these brave and now desperately ill firefighters and EMTs that my column helped shine a light on a problem that would eventually culminate in the creation of a settlement fund and national legislation providing for funding for their ongoing medical needs.

When I wrote about the epidemic of teen dating violence, highlighting some shocking statistics and tragic examples, it was nice to hear from therapists and advocates for raising awareness of this grave problem. However, I was touched beyond words by the e-mail from the mother of a teen, who said that after her daughter read "But He Loves Me . . ." and realized that she wasn't alone, she gained the courage to leave her abusive relationship.

Having people tell me that they learned something from reading "Legally Speaking," or that the tales of weird lawsuits or litigants make them laugh, is great. But someone saying that it changed their life—well, that's really something.

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