December 16, 2022

Requiem for a Servant of the Law: Prof. Anthony C. Morella

by Gus Bequai, Editor

Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state is not….far off…"

-Plato (“Laws”)

The law is one of humanity’s oldest and greatest achievements. Without it, chaos and the rule of the jungle would govern. While the Ancient Scythians and other nomadic groups had developed a body of customary laws to address their daily needs, the first known record of a body of written laws is the Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2,100-2,050 BCE). Written on clay tablets, it addressed the social and economic needs of the citizenry of Ancient Sumeria.

Even if paying lip service for political purposes, it stressed impartiality and fairness in the application of the law. All citizens were equal before it. Sumeria’s rulers had learned from history that unjust laws lead to political instability. It would become a model for the legal codes of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and other ancient civilizations that followed. It became a practice to enact written laws.

While these took on a variety of forms; nevertheless, there was an underlying acknowledgement that the law must be viewed by the populace as just in its application, and tolerant of diversity. When the law came to viewed as unjust, political turmoil followed. The philosopher David Hume said it best: “…the corruption of the best of things produces the worst…”

Which brings us to our story of Prof. Anthony C. Morella; (“Tony,” to his many friends, students, and colleagues). Tony was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1930. The son of poor immigrants from Southern Italy, Tony went on to become an air force officer, lawyer, General Counsel/Vice President of a national university, advisor to mayors, judges, members of Congress, and a devoted teacher-(or servant, as he would often describe himself)- of the law.

Upon completing his military service, Tony returned to Massachusetts and married his college classmate, who in turn went on to become a member of Congress, Ambassador, academic, and more. They both shared an undying commitment to freedom of speech and thought. Their friends and associates encompassed the political expanse.

Tony’s real passion, save for his family, was the law. He taught it to aspiring jurists for more than 50 years; many of these went on to become judges, legislators, and practitioners, and the son of one of these went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. The U.S. Constitution for Tony was one of the great achievements of the 18th century. Dogmas and legal fads came and went, but the law for Tony was eternal. The cement that bonded diverse groups into a civilization. He knew extremely well from his family’s history in Europe, the dangers that lurked when the law became a tool of zealots and the corrupt.

When the nation faced the Watergate Crisis, Tony and his friend and colleague Prof. George Horning, were called on by U.S. District Court John Sirica (of Watergate fame), to advise and represent him in litigation involving then President Nixon. See Nixon v. Sirica, 487 F.2d 700 (D.C. Cir. 1973). Judge Sirica would later remark that the assistance Tony and Prof. Horning had rendered had proven to be invaluable.

When their representation was concluded, unlike many others who gloried in the fanfare of Watergate, Tony and Prof. Horning quietly returned to teaching and practicing law. Before his death, Tony confided that the full story of Watergate would have to be told by future historians. For Tony, the Watergate Crisis affirmed his undying loyalty to the law.

Though approached by publishers with offers to tell the inside scoop of Watergate, Tony turned them down and remained loyal until his death to his client’s secrets. The attorney-client privilege and right to counsel for Tony were sacrosanct. Without them, the American legal system could not properly function. “How can a client trust you,” he would often remark “if you plan to divulge his secrets.” When it came to the law, for Tony, the end never justified the means.

Tony always saw himself as but a servant of the law, a mere speck of sand in the long history and evolution of the law. As General Counsel for a major university, Tony bemoaned the commercialization of the law. Law schools had become cash cows for universities, he would often remark. The main objective of many university administrators, he sadly noted, was no longer to train lawyers to serve society, but to enrich their university covers.

For Tony, the right to counsel had given way to politics; with lawyers refusing to represent clients solely for their political views. The law had increasingly become a tool for berating one’s political opponents. For Tony, these were dangerous trends that could only lead to chaos and violence if left unchecked. Always a servant of the law, Tony strove to impress on his students the right to counsel; it pre-empted their political views.

Tony never forgot his roots and made it a practice to advocate for the poor and forgotten. Tony had also learned from his military experience that diversity was the fiber that made America great. In the military, he would say, those you serve with are your family; their race, gender, ethnicity, and religion go by the wayside. In war, well bleed the same.

He also never forgot the lessons of history or his own extensive first-hand observations of American politics. For Tony, great national leaders never elevated themselves above the law. The best leaders for him, were those who placed the public interest ahead of their own. Modesty, for Tony, was a goal leaders should aspire to attain. It helped them better understand their role in history. The Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus best summarized Tony’s view of politics: “Honor modesty more than your life.” (“The Suppliant Maidens”).

Tony had witnessed the abuses of the McCarthy Era, the growing disparity between America’s rich and poor, and the growing polarization of American politics. For Tony, lawyers and law schools bore some of the blame. He attributed this to the pursuit of riches and the limelight by many lawyers, instead of public service. The young generation of lawyers, however, gave him hope.

Tony fell victim several years ago to an ailment that savaged his body, but not his spirits. When I visited with him, our discussions always turned to the law and its importance to a stable society. For him, the need for lawyers to assert their role as guardians of the law was paramount.

When Tony died peacefully in his home on October 29, 2020, the writings of Spain’s beloved poet Jorge Manrique (c. 1440-79) came to mind. In his most celebrated poem-(“Coplas por la Muerte de su padre”)-he explored the meaning of life. He concluded that life was but a brief journey and what mattered most was how one lived it. For Tony, the law was his life until his dying day. He lived it modestly as its devout servant. Manrique would have approved.

*The views expressed are solely those of the author.