The Erosion of Empathy

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By:  Lauren Anthony

Liberty through a lawyer’s eyes

“The civil rights issue of our generation will be a decrease in individual rights due to safety, especially in regard to terrorism.” “The Fourth Amendment has been emasculated with exceptions; we worship a memory.”  These grim observations were proffered by attorney Phillip Kuhn, a man whose principles took him from the trenches of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s to a chairmanship of the advisory think-tank, Center for Prosecutorial Integrity, for the past two years.  After graduating from Tulane Law School in 1965, Mr. Kuhn was with the Tennessee State’s Attorney’s office for 3 years prior to entering private civil/criminal practice for 19 years.  He then moved to Florida in 1984 and continued in private practice, including a focus on juvenile dependency cases.

Phillip Kuhn is a man not fond of labels, political or otherwise.  But he is a principled professional who believes strongly and fights tenaciously.  In his view, the single most important individual liberty we possess is the right of due process – to lawfully resist government and to be heard when challenged by it.  “I’d represent the devil in front of the Pope,” he said, emphasizing his commitment to individual liberties, regardless of the nature of the allegations against the accused.

Mr. Kuhn has had one of the most colorful and interesting careers a lawyer could have.  In his role as a federal negotiator for the U.S. Justice Department in the late 1960’s, he was part of a team of 4 that ventured into the hearts of riots and attempted to facilitate negotiations between party leaders.  He represented the Invaders of Memphis (a.k.a. Black Panthers) when they were indicted under the first riot acts.  He also represented the producers of the infamous movie “Deep Throat”.  On the other hand, he also defended “Sweet Willie Wine”, who was indicted for armed robbery but acquitted in front of an all-white jury; and petitioned on behalf of a retired, 30-year veteran of the Memphis police force who was being denied pension pay. Additionally, Mr. Kuhn has drafted legislation regarding polygraph licensing, increased discovery rights, sentencing reform, and common sense changes in domestic violence statutes.

Probably some of Phillip Kuhn’s most emotionally taxing work has been on behalf of parents in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida who have faced the juggernaut of juvenile dependency and termination of parental rights proceedings. There is probably no court in the country in which the ratio of what is at stake to the constitutional protections in place is more out of balance. Typically a state agency or agencies put parents on trial and determine whether or under what circumstances they can keep, or reunify with, their children, all under the cloak of confidentiality, without the benefit of a jury, and in the absence of a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof.

In Arkansas, for example, Mr. Kuhn represented 6 sets of parents with a total of 34 children who had been part of a religious group whose leader was convicted of and incarcerated for transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes. Although the man was imprisoned prior to the initiation of dependency proceedings, the state imposed what has been referred to as “the parental death penalty,” terminating the rights of all of the parents to all of their children.

While recent events have given Mr. Kuhn a somewhat cynical view regarding the potential for change, he did make two important points.  First, he referenced a book called Simple Justice (Kluger, 1975), which outlines in detail the tactics used by the NAACP to bring Brown v. Board of Education to the U.S. Supreme Court. This method of simultaneously filing suits in multiple district courts is necessary and effective; however, it requires major funding individuals do not often possess.  Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, Mr. Kuhn insists that the most important thing people can do is to resume communicating face to face rather than electronically. “When we talk to a screen, we are talking to ourselves,” he said. “What has happened in the courtroom is that it has lost its sense of civility and humanity in the process of justice.” This results in what Mr. Kuhn views as the greatest threat to the Constitution as a whole:  “the erosion of empathy for the human being.”

Lauren Anthony has been a freelance writer since 1990, a Florida resident for over 15 years, and resides with her family in Tampa.

Original posting on lpf.org