WASHINGTON -- Justice John Paul Stevens, quoting Shakespeare's often misunderstood advice to 'kill all the lawyers,' rebuked his Supreme Court colleagues Friday in defense of the role lawyers play in preserving freedom.
Stevens made his remarks in a dissent to a 6-3 court decision Friday by Justice William Rehnquist that upheld a Civil War-era law preventing military veterans from paying lawyers more than $10 to challenge Veterans Administration denials of disability benefits.
The majority said if veterans were to hire lawyers to fight for disability benefits, they would lose part of those benefits to legal fees, and lawyers thus could become more pervasive through the system.
'The court does not appreciate the value of individual liberty,' Stevens said in his dissent.
Joined in the dissent by Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, Stevens said that if veterans want to hire an attorney, they should have that right.
'Just as I disagree with the present court's crabbed view of the concept of 'liberty,' so do I reject its apparent unawareness of the function of the independent lawyer as a guardian of our freedom,' Stevens said.
In a footnote to that statement, Stevens said the function of the lawyer as a guardian of freedom was 'well understood by Jack Cade and his followers, characters who are often forgotten and whose most famous line is often misunderstood.'
'Dick's statement ('The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers') was spoken by a rebel not a friend of liberty.'
The famous line comes from Shakespeare's play 'King Henry VI,' Part Two, act four, scene two, line 72.
'As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government,' the footnote said.
Stevens concluded his dissent by saying the 'reason for the court's mistake today is all too obvious. It does not appreciate the value of individual liberty.'