Inns of court: back to the beginning page inns of court: back to the beginning

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Circuit Judge Charles J. Roberts

Master, Vassar B. Carlton Inn of Court, Melbourne, Florida

Inns of Court are a great tradition in law, and what better way to appreciate that tradition than to visit the very places of the beginning?

This year the Vassar B. Carlton American Inn of Court offered a trip to London and Dublin. The main purpose was to visit the Middle Temple of London, and the King’s Inn of Dublin, to visit their Courts and to meet colleagues: solicitors, barristers and judges; in short, to visit the places from which sprang the traditions we follow in these United States, and our own Brevard County, Florida. No such trip would be complete without an opportunity for site seeing and just plain fun. We fulfilled those goals as well!
The trip was organized by our Inn President, Judge Kelly McKibben. Also attending were her husband Scott, Senior Judge Clarence and Shirley Johnson, Chief Judge Preston and Betts Silvernail, Judge Tonya and Giles Rainwater and attorney Robin Petersen.
Some arrived via shuttle while others took the tube from the airport. The tube was located within a block of the hotel in South Kensington. Travel tip: take the tube and be there within 30 to 45 minutes for a few pounds, the British currency. A taxi for us could have taken up to two hours, and cost about $80.00! And from the tube station near the hotel, we could quickly, safely and inexpensively go anywhere we desired.
Our first day was a guided tour of The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, a view of Parliament and the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. We were so fortunate to have “Warren” as a guide, as his volunteer “daytime job” is as a magistrate. So, not only was he marvelously well informed, but he understood our interests in law and its roots in history and tradition. He often tailored his remarks to share that common interest.
The Tower is really a castle along the River Thames. You can see the original “keep” built by the Norman Baron, William the Conqueror, just after he defeated the Saxon King, Harold Godwinson, to claim the throne of England. He intended it as a sign he was there to stay, and indeed he and his descendants ruled for centuries. His grandsons included King Richard the Lionhearted and King John, who, with the Sheriff of Nottingham, imprisoned Maid Marian and declared Robin an outlaw in Sherwood Forest, now the stuff of legends and Disney movies.
You can see the additions to the castle, made in later centuries. You come to understand what a tyrant and bully King Henry the Eighth was. Not only did he kill several wives, one just weeks after the marriage, but he also imprisoned his lifelong friend, Sir Thomas More, in a dungeon of the Tower, below the tidal ebb and flow of the Thames. Sir Thomas was twice daily inundated in the filth of the castle and the cold waters of the Thames, but he would not yield to Henry, and accept his new religion. Henry beheaded him as well. These things bring home the reasons why framers of the Constitution and legal minds that built on their work, saw fit to limit the power of the central government, and to include the protection of a writ of habeas corpus, and a right to see a judge within twenty four hours of arrest.
There you also meet the famed Wardens of the Tower castle, the “Beefeaters”, a name they disdain. They still help the castle guards provide security for the Crown Jewels. How spectacular are they?! It is one thing to see a photo of jewel-bedecked crowns and encrusted swords, or a diamond the size of a goose egg in a scepter. It is another to see them eighteen inches from your nose, through crystal clear glass, with spotlights playing on every facet! The rings and necklaces, the golden dinner service, including a punch bowl large enough to serve at gatherings of several thousand, are beyond my description.
We also visited Westminster Abbey, the place where from time nearly immemorial, the English Kings and Queens, have sought the blessing of the church for their rule. As you walk the floors, there beneath your feet, and on every side, are the flagstones and burial crypts of the famous: Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Thomas More, Queens Anne and Elizabeth, half sisters and enemies in life, sharing the same room in death, Charles Darwin and so many more. You gain a sense of the struggle between the power of the church, with its hold over the people through their faith, and the crown with its raw power of the sword. You will see the coronation hall and chair, with the ancient special shelf below the seat, for the Scottish Coronation Stone of Scone, captured by the English, and placed in the seat, so the English Kings were symbolically crowned over the Scottish Kings. There also are the carved armorial seats, bearing the coats of arms of the knights, champions of the realm, warriors who were also educated in the law, who later became the lawyers and judges, champions of the people. Ours is the tradition of trial by combat where might makes right, which became the trial before an independent judge or before a jury of our peers, where legal philosophy and law and legal precedent became the sword of truth and the shield of justice. From this adversarial combat, came our adversarial system, where truth is forged from the anvil of one parties’ position and the hammer of the opposing party.
Our stop at The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, one of the four great Inns of Court in London, was equally impressive. You have seen this Temple; in the film “The Davinci Code”. In the Temple Church lies the Knights in Effigy, on the floor, as portrayed in the film. What must it have taken to carve their likenesses in stone, arrayed in full battle dress, and how important must they have been in life, to be so preserved?
The Middle Temple and the nearby dining hall are so very special, for the ancient carvings and the stained glass, as well as the ancient traditions embodied on all sides.
The Temple was established by the Knights Templars, in the middle twelfth century. These knights’ mission was to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. They quickly gained great wealth and land holdings by also becoming their bankers, enabling travelers to draw money along the way, and not risk carrying their wealth with them. Following the Templars fall from grace and their slaughter under Pope Clement in the 1300s, a move that may have been motivated by a land grab: reversion of their lands to the Crown and Church, the Templar lands in London came into the possession of the Knights Hospitallers. There, near the Courts in Westminster, lawyers began to gather, to meet clients, to dine together, to debate and learn from each other, and to prepare for court. The Inner and Middle Temples were established as separate, but collegial. By the 16th century, legal education, always a reason for gathering in the “Inns”, was a central part of Inn life. Students were expected to dine with barristers and judges, to attend proceedings before the court, to participate in “readings” and legal or “moot” exercises at the Inn. Learning “vacations” took place twice a year; an early form of immersion learning. Senior members of the Inns delivered lectures.
We were privileged to tour the Temple and to luncheon in the same hall used by famous lawyers, judges, kings and queens, as well as the place where well known American jurists, such as Chief Justice John G. Roberts, have addressed the Inns, by invitation. On our tour we saw such things as the famous table, made from the hatch cover of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, where all lawyers “called to the bench”, are sworn and become “benchers”. On the wall, we find the list of members who later came to the “American Colonies”, and were later signatories to the Declaration of Independence and drafters of the Constitution.
A passing note of interest, among the myriad: in the 1600s and continuing through the 1800s, it was common for children to be abandoned to the “charity of the Inns”; something the Inns discouraged, but could not control. The children would be taken in and raised, and given the name of the Inn in which they lived. Likely then, one of Abraham Lincoln’s ancestors was a foundling child of the Lincoln Inn!
This tradition of Inns of Court was also established in Ireland. Indeed members of the The Honorable Society of King’s Inn of Dublin are often also members of one of the four London Inns. We met the Under Treasurer of the Inn, Camilla McAleese, and received a tour of the spectacular King’s Inn, itself replete with ancient history and tradition. On every side are the paintings of famous trials and events, including the trial of Irish Republican James Connolly for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1916. Portraits of eminent jurists and barristers adorn the walls, resplendent in their official garb. It is hard to describe the feeling of sitting at a table, examining a book with entries dating back to the 1700s; the same table having a computer equipped for wireless internet, and set up for legal research and writing.
After the tour of the Inn, Camilla set us on our way to lunch at Hanley at the Bar, a restaurant where the solicitors and barristers gather, and afterwards to tour the “Four Courts”, the main courts in Dublin. At lunch, our paths fortuitously crossed with a young “devil” (first year lawyer, like an associate here), Conor Nelson. With typical Irish hospitality he volunteered to take us to the courts, and to also escort us to the new criminal courts building, minutes away by electric tram. Through friends, Conor arranged for us to observe a double murder trial (one victim and two accused killers), and to meet the presiding judge, The Honorable Mr. Justice Patrick J. McCarthy.
What an experience! The courtroom was vastly different! The defendants sat in a dock, facing the jury in the box, across the room, and not with their lawyers. Never did I see a lawyer confer with a client. The judge is on a bench, as are ours, with clerks and judicial assistants on either side. The “tipstaff”, like our bailiff, provides security. Immediately below the judge, and facing the barristers with whom they are associated, are the solicitors. Across the table, facing the judge are the lead barristers, defense and prosecution seated side by side at counsel table! Behind the lead barrister are the “juniors” (co-counsel) in their pew, and behind the juniors are their devils. Just behind the devils are the pews for the public, with no bar in between. There is no open space between the bench and counsel tables, and before the jury. Lawyers cannot roam, but are tethered to their pew. They always rise to speak, are unfailingly polite to the judge and opposing counsel, but remain in place and simply sit back down when remarks conclude. In those criminal courts, a barrister may be prosecution in one case, and defense counsel in another case!
Another treat was in store for us: when Judge McCarthy took his afternoon break, he directed the courthouse administrator and tipstaff to escort us to his chambers. There, over coffee and tea, we had a fascinating hour long visit, discussing legal systems and philosophy, with Dublin spread below us as a backdrop. Judge McCarthy was hospitable, curious and accommodating of our questions, and outspoken in his opinions. We had a memorable learning experience that ranks as my favorite event in the trip.
I returned to that court the following day, and watched more of the trial. Upon arriving home, I followed it on the internet, through newspaper reports. At the close of the prosecution’s case, Judge McCarthy directed the jury to acquit the defendants, opining there was insufficient evidence to convict, as the medical examiner could not conclude if the victim had died from a blow to the head, or from injuries he sustained in a fall! Then the defendants were re-arrested IN THE COURTROOM BY THE TIPSTAFF, and held to face a new trial on other charges arising from the same event!! I believe the charge was called “criminal mischief with bodily injury”. And now perhaps we see why the framers of our Constitution included the prohibition of being twice tried and being twice put in jeopardy of loss of life or freedom, for crimes arising from the same event; the “double jeopardy” clause.
Ireland is beautiful, and the Irish very friendly. Several of our group took advantage of this to tour the countryside by train, and the city by “hop on-hop off” bus. We did encounter one dilemma: Sir Paul McCartney was playing in concert at the EXACT time that U.S.A was playing England in World Cup Soccer. No compromise was available. This was a case of pick one, and only one. I chose World Cup with Conor and his mates, in an old Irish pub, screaming along with the Irish for U.S.A. to beat England! The game played to a tie, considered a loss for England. And those that went to the concert? They report it was smashing, complete with three encores, and exceeded their expectations! So, whatever your choice, a good time was had by all.
Inns of Court: Back To The Beginning. From traditions and legal philosophy rooted in the tenth century and still bearing fruit in our legal system today, over a thousand years later. From libraries of ancient volumes of precedent and wisdom, to mighty computer search engines, capable of finding and making available that precedent and its progeny, in the same library. From Inns in the Old World, where by virtue of a fine legal and philosophical education, “benchers” there became “framers” in the New World, of a new philosophy of freedom and independence. And in the Inns of the beginning, we discover ourselves. The Inns of today are still places of learning; places where pupils learn law and ethics from barristers and masters, break bread in a collegial setting, and participate in legal exercises. In the Inns of the beginning, we discover Inns of today.

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