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Saying Goodbye to a Great One

Of big bands, a big man and Janice Rogers Brown.

12:00 AM, Jun 1, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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In my youth, I admired and respected him and wanted to emulate him. As I grew older and had more opportunities to get to know him, to become first an acquaintance, then a colleague, and a friend, I came to love him. I do not think there is one person within his orbit who was not the beneficiary of his wisdom, encouragement, and generosity. He gave us his "Rules to Live By" to amuse us. But, the way he lived his life inspired us. He was devoted to his wife Ingrid and endearingly proud of his children. Indeed, he had a disconcerting tendency to adopt any of us when he felt we needed guidance.

He taught us that character counts and integrity is personal. He never allowed cruelty or deception or hypocrisy to go unchallenged. He did the right thing even when he would have benefited from doing the expedient thing. Freedom is not free he would often remind us, but, in Justice Puglia's view, it was worth the price--however dear.

His life experience and his understanding of history produced in him a certain toughness--the power of facing the difficult and unpleasant without flinching; discipline and intellectual rigor; physical courage; and, even more importantly, the courage to be different. Never one to follow the herd of independent minds, his was a unique voice. As California's Chief Justice has ruefully acknowledged, Justice Puglia was "a strong personality . . . not shy of stating his beliefs, nor about challenging others to justify theirs" but surprisingly willing to listen and modify his views. He was, as his long-time colleague Justice Blease noted: "formidable" and "intimidating," but he had a "heart of gold."

There are so many themes and threads that run through Justice Puglia's life and the history of the Third District Court of Appeal that I do not think it can be mere coincidence. Norton Parker Chipman had stood on the battlefield at Gettysburg when Lincoln gave that memorable speech. Justice Puglia was a student of history--especially the Civil War era. He could speak of Andersonville and Robert E. Lee and the battles of that terrible war as easily as other people recite the latest baseball scores. There are similarities in the descriptions of Justice Puglia and President Lincoln that are striking.

In a speech in 1906, Norton Parker Chipman recalled that his friend Abraham Lincoln was "firm as the granite hills," yet capable of great patience and forbearance. Carl Sandburg described Lincoln as "both steel and velvet . . . hard as rock and soft as the drifting fog." Reading these words caused a shock of recognition, for I had been seeing exactly this sort of paradox and contradiction in the life of Justice Puglia.

Seeing these parallels, I have come to understand that this flexibility is neither paradox nor accommodation. It is just the opposite--a sense of sure-footedness and balance that is often the defining trait of people of great character and impeccable integrity. It is precisely this quality which makes the honest public intellectual, a man like Bob Puglia, so extraordinary.

In his first message to Congress in 1862, Lincoln warned that we might "nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth." Lincoln, of course, was referring to the Union. Justice Puglia felt that same sense of fierce commitment to the rule of law. The preservation of the rule of law and of the equality of all people under that rule was, in his view, the core principle of liberty and the only reason America might qualify for such a grand epithet.

My favorite movie scene is in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the scene where Atticus Finch has argued brilliantly and raised much more than a reasonable doubt, virtually proving the innocence of the accused, but the jury still returns a guilty verdict. Most of the spectators file noisily into the street, gossiping and celebrating. Upstairs, relegated to the balcony, another audience has watched the proceedings and remains seated. As Atticus Finch gathers his papers and walks slowly from the courtroom, they rise silently in unison. The Black minister, Reverend Sykes, taps Scout on the shoulder and says: "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'." To me, this silent homage to a good and courageous man, who respects and believes in the rule of law--and is willing to defend it even at great personal cost--is the most moving moment in the whole film.

Justice Puglia was just such a man. And he was not a fictional character. Most of us have risen to our feet many times to mark his passage because he was a judge. Court protocol required us to show respect for the robe and what it represented. But Justice Puglia was the kind of man who earned and could command our respect by virtue of his life and character. In a way, the robe was superfluous.

We have had the great good fortune to know this extraordinary man. We can remember what he taught us. We need not be fearless to have courage. We can be tough and tender. We can do the right thing--and face the bad that cannot be avoided unflinchingly. We can laugh. And we must sing--even when people frown at us and advise us to keep our day jobs. We can care for the people around us. We can be generous. We can make our way, against the tide, without rancor or bitterness. And when we are tired and overburdened and feel we are not brave enough to go on, we will hear his voice in our ear. Hear him say in that quiet and steely tone: "Yes, you can. You can." And we will know that we are being true to his legacy. The legacy of one who loved liberty. We will know that we are standing up . . . because Justice Puglia is passin'.

Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.