A Fall of Fortuities (A Paean in Memory of John Hampton Stennis)

James L. Robertson

Article by James L. Robertson Featured Author


It began with a September of fortuities, a few fateful days, twelve years ago.

I remember the day — the night — that slow motion moment I finally found (surely I was close) — that point on the Pont Royal above those five elliptical arches across the Seine that had moved in and out of my moods and anxieties and curiosities and hopes for so many years, like no other venue.

Would it disappoint?

I did not hear “the sound of a body striking the water,” nor “a cry, repeated several times, which was going down stream.” 1 Only silence.

That night, my night, was damp, dark. Off and on it rained those three extra days when we could not get a flight out of Paris and back home. Only stillness penetrated the mist.

That night, I communed with the soul of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, esteemed lawyer, defender of widows and orphans, turned judge-penitent par excellence.

“Too late, too far … ?” I’m not sure what my excuse would have been. Too cold? Never could swim well? Could I possibly have helped? Whatever.

Like J-BC “that particular night in November,” “I was still listening as I stood motionless. Then, slowly under the rain, I went away,” knowing well that I, too, would have “informed no one.” 2

What, if anything, does it mean?

What does it mean to be consumed by that compulsive thought, I must do something, even if it might be wrong? Unavailing? On September 17, 2001? Ever? And live with the fact that I did nothing.

And fess up that I know it is a farce to think such thoughts outside the context of the inescapable vastness of reality and our insignificance in it.

Stories of Voyager 1 leaving the Solar System proper and entering interstellar space — “the holy grail of heliosphere research” — culminated on Friday the 13th with Brooks Barnes’ front page picture piece in The New York Times,3 pushing aside reports of temporal inconveniences such as chemical weapons in Syria and the national debt. Voyager 2 will soon follow suit, in a different direction.

Courtney Humphries’ thoughtful piece “Life’s Beginnings” 4 appeared in September 2013, and talked of core questions: how did life begin on Planet Earth? And, since somehow at sometime it began here, likely also on at least some of the now known exoplanets with like mass and structure and atmosphere — in the Goldilocks Zone? 5

The statistical probability that our little place is not unique overwhelms. Kepler 6 or some successor venture will some day replace probability with hard evidentiary facts.

For so many of my generation, these questions of reality are for science, and not philosophy or religion. We respect those who cling to older ways, and their freedom of thought, increasingly unable to understand them, or why they still believe.

More than ever I know Holmes was right when he told us morals are a contrivance of man to take himself seriously, a point Camus a/k/a J-BC applied, “To be sure, I occasionally pretend to take life seriously.” 7 If only I could have a drink with J-BC in Mexico City the night we first know the terrible wonderful truth! And hear the words of the “worthy ape” at being told, though he sometimes “merely grunts.” 8

A Soul’s Passing

The humanist soul of John Hampton Stennis passed on September 5. My friend would have understood this backdrop to our approaching 12th anniversary of 9/11. And of our national political contretemps of October, 2013, and as far beyond as the eye can see. And his, your and my tiny temporality and place in the Universe.

John Hampton read Camus.

… another friend quoted John Hampton in the next day’s paper, “I re-read Camus,” and triggered my thoughts of the fortuities of Falls past and present.

Or, as another friend quoted John Hampton in the next day’s paper, “I re-read Camus,” and triggered my thoughts of the fortuities of Falls past and present.

I don’t remember why I was visiting John Hampton in his law office that day in 1980.

But I do remember The Fall, prominently displayed. On a coffee table, maybe? A stand alone place on a bookshelf? I’m not sure. Not that I was bored or uninterested in our discussion; he used words so well that would never happen. “I confess my weakness … for fine speech.” 9

“So you, too, are acquainted with Jean-Baptiste Clamence.”

Each of us had been in the offices of other lawyers in other cities and noticed a copy of The Fall. We knew what that meant.

“That strange affection I had for you had sense to it then … [W]e practice the noble profession of lawyer! I sensed that we were of the same species.” 10 Lawyers display books so others will think better of us than we deserve, as we define “better.” John Hampton and I agreed The Fall in a lawyer’s office says something more and different. It was hardly a work that would impress clients, though a few may have been force fed The Stranger in high school. The Fall is not a book a lawyer would have without having at least read at it. Besides, it’s thin.

In that conversation, John Hampton told me, “I re-read Camus.”

And so at my soulmate’s passing and in the days that followed in the Fall of 2013, I re-read and re-read The Fall.

After the Fall

I had not been to Paris when I first read it, nor before my bonding visit with John Hampton. I knew I would get there at some point, and experience the Pont Royal at night, alone.

Once I became a judge, the matter took on a bit of urgency.

Yes, mon cher compatriote, I thought how I stacked up with J-BC, Parisian lawyer, defender of noble causes. With friends, we had freed political speech on the college campuses from the fierce fear-based opposition of M.M. Roberts dominated IHL Board appointees.11

By what of my less than noble efforts of August 1964? 12 A little ends/means rationalization at best.

In the Fall of 1977, J. C. Redd and Claude Ramsay and John Maxey and moi, and a public interested coalition no one today could comprehend, had resurrected a beautifully equitable and efficient property tax system, clumsily affirmed by the Supreme Court,13 undone in an eyelash by the Legislature.

Ah, the Legislature! A few years earlier I had earnestly argued to a House Committee for some bill I thought worthy. After the meeting, Chairman Stennis put his arm around me and said, “Jimmy, you act like you think this issue will be decided on its merits. It won’t. It will be decided by politics.” His eyes twinkled, as inimitable as his smile, his wisdom dispensed.

I had cheated the hangman four times! 14 But after “the Fall,” J-BC would confront me, did I do it for them or for moi? And did I really have much to do with the Big Cheat besides getting the condemned’s case before the court in a procedural posture so that a luckily drawn panel might do the rest?

More soberly and immediate in January of 1983, how was I obliged to confess my own wrongdoings in order to have the moral authority to judge others? Was there doubt how J-BC would answer that one?

“People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. What do you expect? The idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence.” 15

J-BC’s penetrating insight — re-read in the wake of John Hampton’s passing — seared my being a month ago when I read the Times’ obit of warden Don Cabana whom I knew and admired. Strapped in the gas chamber, “this young man [Edward Earl Johnson] looked me in the eye with tears streaming down his cheeks, and he said, ‘Warden, you’re about to become a murderer. I did not kill that policeman, and, dear God, I can’t make anyone believe me.’” 16

I had once represented Edward Earl Johnson,17 but abandoned him to become a judge.

September 2001

Fast forward to early September of 2001. We had booked flights abroad, the centerpiece of which would be a visit to the south of France to see friends. The question was, how was I going to convince Linda during our brief time in Paris of the importance of my crossing the Pont Royal at night, alone, to gain a sense of J-BC and that damp chilly night?

Osama bin Laden and his co-jihadists made it possible. They gave me three extra days. I can see J-BC’s wry smile at my confessing how I finally got there.

From J-BC I have learned that I am responsible for all that does harm. I am obliged to do something though reason tells me there is nothing I can do that will do any good. And even though I do not know and cannot know enough to know what will work, much less what is right or just!

So, do I escape guilt by having (sort of) done something a time or two, something befitting a pragmatic instrumentalist who deludes himself into thinking he is more or less trying?

Mexico City in Amsterdam

John Hampton’s passing reminded me I’ve never made it to Amsterdam in search of Mexico City, where J-BC nightly practiced the profession of a judge-penitent. Or to Ghent to experience the Alterpiece and the false Just Judges.

My heart skipped a beat on Sunday morning, Sept. 29. I devoured “The Ghosts of Amsterdam,” front page picture story of the Travel Section of The New York Times, absorbing pages 6 and 7 as well.

Rembrandt. Van Gogh. Karl Marx. Anne Frank. I read the long story twice. Surely I’d missed it, skimming too fast, the part about the ghost of Camus a/k/a J-BC, John Hampton’s muse and mine, and of others of our generation and those who have followed.18 I fired off an “I can’t believe it” e-mail to Russell Shorto, author of the article with a book on Amsterdam now in the bookstores.

“Missed opportunities,” 19 was Shorto’s reply, which sent me back to “that particular night in November” when J-BC crossed the Pont Royal alone, had his Fall, and “informed no one.” Shorto’s post mortem plea was Camus’ escape. “It’s too late now. It will always be too late.” 20

Understand that Mexico City is as much a state of mind as a bar in Amsterdam’s red light district, over which the “worthy ape … presides” and where judge-penitent J-BC practices his profession. Access to J-BC’s services is granted only to lawyers and others who read and re-read The Fall.

Of Judges Just And Not So Just

“The Just Judges” is a panel in the famous Ghent Alterpiece, or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, circa 1432, by Jan Van Eyck. “[I]f you read the papers[21] [as a modern man without gaps in his culture should], you would recall the theft in 1934 in the St. Bavon Cathedral … ” 22

“Notice, for instance, on the back wall above his head that empty rectangle marking the place where a picture has been taken down … Well, I was present when the master of the house received it.” 23 “A frequenter of Mexico City … sold it to the ape for a bottle, one drunken evening.” 24

“[F]or a long time, while they were being looked for throughout the world, our devout judges sat enthroned at Mexico City above the drunks and pimps.

“Then the ape, at my request, put it in my custody here.” 25

And why “did [J-BC] not return the panel?” 26 Five reasons are offered, one being that it has been replaced by a copy so well done that “among those who file by ‘The Adoration of the Lamb’ no one could distinguish the copy from the original and hence no one is wronged by my misconduct.” 27

Then the reason that resonates. “False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones.” 28 Which was I on the day I voted to affirm a life sentence since served in full by an innocent man? 29

And on so many other days when I wrote opinions and cast votes, cursed with knowing that, with at least half of the seven or so thousand cases that crossed my desk in those ten years, a facially credible opinion could be written sans intellectual dishonesty to reach almost any result? Or what’s a procedural bar for?!?

And as for J-BC, with the true “Judges” locked up in his cupboard, everything was in harmony, “Justice being definitively separated from Innocence.” 30

  1. Albert Camus, The Fall 70 (translated by Justin O’Brien, ed., Alfred A. Knopf, 1956).
  2. Id. at 69–70.
  3. Brooks Barnes, Exiting the Solar System and Fulfilling a Dream, The New York Times, Sept. 13, 2013 at 1.
  4. Courtney Humphries, Life’s Beginnings: Studying How Life Bloomed On Earth — And Might Emerge Elsewhere, Harvard Magazine, September/October 2013, at 39.
  5. Dennis Overbye, Far-Off Planets Like the Earth Dot the Galaxy, The New York Times, Nov. 5, 2013, at 1.
  6. http://kepler.nasa.gov
  7. The Fall, supra, at 87.
  8. Id. at 3.
  9. Id. at 5.
  10. Id. at 147 (J-BC).
  11. Stacy v. Williams, 306 F. Supp. 963 (N. D. Miss. 1969); Molpus v. Fortune, 311 F.Supp. 240 (N. D. Miss. 1970), aff’d 432 F.2d 916 (5th Cir. 1970).
  12. See my “An August Memory,” CABA Newsletter (August 2013); www.caba.ms.
  13. State Tax Commission v. Fondren, 387 So. 2d 712 (Miss. 1980).
  14. See, e.g., Bell v. Watkins, 692 F.2d 999 (5th Cir. 1983), wherein my client Charles Sylvester Bell and I were told we “ma[de] three other unpersuasive ‘logical’ arguments,” and “the first two arguments are seductive but misleading.” Bell, 692 F.2d at 1005 fn. 8, but Bell’s sentence was vacated nonetheless. Among the fortuities of this September some three decades later, I checked the Supreme Court’s hand down list on Thursday the 12th and found legally convincing evidence that my former client was quite alive and well and still pleading his case. See Bell v. State, En Banc Order, Sept. 12, 2013. Go Charles!
  15. THE FALL, supra, at 80-81
  16. Bruce Weber, Donald Cabana, 67, Warden Who Loathed Death Penalty, The New York Times, Oct. 13, 2013, at 20 .
  17. See Johnson v. State, 416 So. 2d 383 (Miss. 1982).
  18. Mississippi born and bred Donna Tartt is a generation younger. Asked recently “if you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be?” Tartt replied, “[I]f it was a dinner date? Albert Camus. That trench coat! That cigarette! I think my French is good enough. We’d have a great time.” By the Book: Donna Tartt, The New York Times Book Review, October 20, 2013, at 8 . Yes, for those who are too young to have known Camus’ countenance, or just aren’t sure, he did indeed remind one of Humphrey Bogart in the final scene of Casablanca, and vice versa.
  19. Another reader had remonstrated with Shorto that he made no mention of John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace at the Amsterdam Hilton.
  20. Id. at 69-70, 147.
  21. For J-BC’s a/k/a Albert Camus’ thought on modern man and reading the papers, see The Fall, supra, at 6.
  22. Id. at 128.
  23. Id. at 5.
  24. Id. at 128–29.
  25. Id. at 129.
  26. Id.; see also id. at 90.
  27. Id.
  28. Id. at 129–30.
  29. See my “A Life Sentence Served By An Innocent Man,” CABA Newsletter at 8 (June 2011); www.caba.ms/archives.
  30. The Fall, supra, at 130.