By Linda Cicoira
Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons of the Virginia Supreme Court captured the audience with his sense of humor Wednesday night and spoke seriously about lawyers providing “equal justice under the law” by doing pro bono work.
“We have enormous services to provide to those who cannot afford it,” he told the Eastern Shore Bar Association, other dignitaries who work in the local legal system, and guests who gathered at the Eastville Inn. “We all need to come forward to deal with this,” Lemons said. “We have to join together to do what we can.”
“My audience is my oath,” Lemons said when asked who he writes his opinions for. He favors the General Assembly choosing judges rather than voters to keep the process fair.
Briefly, he mentioned the change that will take effect July 1 regarding prosecutors and defense lawyers exchanging witness lists and expert reports, and the defense being allowed to read police reports and witness statements prior to trial. Lemons also noted hundreds of unfilled positions in the district courts saying he hoped those jobs would soon be had.
The other major speaker of the evening was Leonard C. Heath Jr., president of the state bar association. His focus was the downside of working in a high-stress indoor job, which can cause depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. His message was to take the wellness approach to avoid the problem.
“The best thing we can do is educate,” said Heath. He wants to make sure there is a system where lawyers and judges can get help before becoming impaired.
In his own life, Heath said, his wife realized he was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression related to the change in seasons. She ordered him a treadmill and a lightbox, which gives off bright light that mimics the outdoors.
Soon after the packages arrived, Heath was diagnosed by a physician. He learned he needed to take Vitamin D supplements because he didn’t get enough sun and plans to take the vitamins daily for the rest of his life and to exercise.
Alcohol abuse is more prevalent for lawyers than it is in many other professions and starts in about the second year of law school, Heath continued. “Now, if we see the heart of the problem is a wellness problem we can fix that or mitigate that.”
The bar association president is traveling across Virginia to speak to students and new attorneys to make them aware of the issue.
Lemons agreed. Wellness is a “very important thing.” He recently appointed a special committee to address the issue in the legal community. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He asked and then answered, “Yes.” He said it was the duty of the lawyers to assist their colleagues with these problems. “We’re a regulated profession, we have an obligation.”
The chief justice said he doesn’t let his job rule his life. “I’m a husband and father first. Everything else is subservient to that … All of that is a lifetime of habits. It sure does come in handy now.”
Lemons spoke in a panel with local bar association president, Jack Thornton, treasurer Celia Burge (who is also Accomack’s County Attorney), and Judge Gordon Vincent, who presides over general district courts in both Accomack and Northampton counties.
Thornton wanted Lemons to share the secret of rising to the top. “How do you get to be chief justice?” he asked.
“It’s a miracle,” Lemons said. “Right on up there with Moses parting the Red Sea.” But he suggested starting by being a good lawyer — being the one others would go to. “Empathy is a major aspect in the character of a person who makes a good judge,” he said at the start of the session.
Lemons said he became a lawyer because his mother sent him subliminal messages while he slept. His father was in law enforcement so the legal system was in his blood.
After his first four years in college, he worked as a probation officer and saw “law at its best and absolute worst.” He witnessed lawyers meeting clients for the first time a few minutes before trial. “Didn’t take long to realize there was something wrong with that,” he said.