July 3 marks the date this year TCDLA members will appear at courthouses across the Lone Star State to recite the Declaration of Independence. The traditional presentations have become TCDLA’s biggest public relations effort. More importantly, the readings galvanize the criminal defense bar for a unified, worthwhile, statewide show of support for the most basic of our American values. We feel patriotic on the most American day of the year, transcending our roles as advocates for the little guys, reinforcing the reasons we choose to live here and do what we do for a living.
The TCDLA tradition evolved from an idea Robb Fickman had in 2010. He and others in the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA) were frustrated by years of adversarial relationships with the local judiciary. Robb suggested a symbolic, peaceful sort of protest against the modern-day tyrants who ruled the courthouse like Britain’s George III once ruled the colonies: HCCLA members would recite the Declaration of Independence on the courthouse steps just before July 4th. With backs to the courthouse, without permission from anyone, about 15 lawyers read the great document. Some media showed up, everyone got a big kick out of it, and the seeds of a movement were sown.
Annual Declaration readings by individuals and groups of criminal defense lawyers slowly spread across the state. By 2015, TCDLA and many local criminal defense organizations had embraced the tradition. In 2016, TCDLA helped sponsor a statewide campaign that resulted in readings in each of Texas’ 254 counties.
Last year, perhaps the most poignant and meaningful reading took place at Tornillo by members of El Paso’s criminal defense bar and others. At the time, Tornillo was the site of 20 large tents on a parched field owned by the Department of Homeland Security, home to teenage children separated from their parents by the U.S. government (https://www.voiceforthedefenseonline.com/tornillo/).
If you would like to get involved as an organizer or participant in a local event, here’s a primer, written by Robb Fickman:
1. DATE/TIME: Statewide readings will take place on the morning of July 3, 2019, at a time that best fits with your local event. If your event must be staged on another date on or around July 4, that’s also okay.
2. NOTE: Many American institutions exemplified by our Bill of Rights are under attack. Therefore, this year, we encourage organizers to include a reading of the Bill of Rights along with your Declaration reading.
3. GOAL: Our sole goal is to encourage the public reading of the Declaration (and the Bill of Rights) by the criminal defense bar. This TCDLA event is not connected to any political organization or movement. We just think it’s important to remind people about the meaning of July 4th. That’s why we are involved. To watch videos from last year’s readings, please go to http://www.tcdla.com.
4. VOLUNTEER ORGANIZER: One or two people should be responsible for organizing this event in each jurisdiction. If you have never been involved in organizing a reading and you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact Robb Fickman (713-655-7400, ) or Chuck Lanehart (806-765-7370, ).
5. LOCATION: Readings should take place directly in front of the county courthouse, if possible. This draws attention and sends a message to those inside the courthouse.
6. RECRUITING READERS: Get fellow criminal defense lawyers committed well ahead of the scheduled date to come and read. All criminal defense lawyers are known for their egos, so promise reading parts and make people commit to come. Promise them they will find the experience fun and rewarding. Since the reading is sponsored by TCDLA, try to give preference to members of TCDLA, or at least to those who regularly defend the citizen accused. We prefer prosecutors and judges as spectators only, but if your local jurisdiction must make an exception because of a scarcity of lawyers or because of tradition, that’s okay.
7. THIS IS A CRIMINAL DEFENSE BAR EVENT: This is a TCDLA, statewide criminal defense bar event. It belongs to the criminal defense bar. We ask that you jealously guard the identity of the event. We do not want it to lose its identity. So please be careful to ALWAYS make certain folks know this is the criminal defense bar’s event and belongs to no one else.
8. DEFENSE BAR ATTENDANCE: Email or otherwise send invitations to your entire criminal defense bar. Encourage lawyers to bring staff and family. There is not a more meaningful family event, especially for impressionable young children, than a local reading of the Declaration.
9. OTHER INVITATIONS: Invite the local bar, judiciary, prosecutors, court personnel, the press, and the public to attend.
10. NEWS RELEASE: If you think it appropriate, issue a news release prior to the reading. Even if they don’t show up, the media will know the defense bar is doing something positive. You may give your own reasons for being involved. Please remember this is a TCDLA event, and only the TCDLA President and his designees speak for TCDLA.
11. FOCUS FOR 2019 READINGS: As you may know, in 2016, TCDLA sponsored readings in every Texas county in commemoration of the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. This year, we hope to focus on quality over quantity. We want each reading to inspire everyone who participates and everyone who attends, and we want to make sure everyone wants to come back next year. Those of you who enjoyed ventures into the hinterlands in 2016 to read in small counties with no lawyers or few lawyers are certainly encouraged to do it again, but this year you won’t be badgered by anyone to travel beyond your hometowns.
12. HOW TO PRODUCE A QUALITY EVENT:
- THE READING CEREMONY: The Declaration can be divided into 38 distinct parts, allowing for as many as 38 different readers to participate. Make enough copies for all readers. Then on the morning of the reading, distribute the numbered copies of the Declaration to each reader. Tell each reader what section they are reading. Before you start the reading, call out numbers, having each person with the corresponding number answer present. If there is a large crowd, have the readers come forward and stand at the center of the crowd. Tell them to read loud. You may want them to face all in the same direction or form a circle. You may choose instead to print only one copy of the Declaration, put it in a 3-ring binder, and direct each reader to the podium to read his or her part. The movement looks good, and the readers will all keep their heads up.
- OPENING REMARKS: The organizer or his/her designee is encouraged to make brief remarks just before the reading. No long speeches. It should be mentioned that your local ceremony is part of a larger tradition sponsored by TCDLA to encourage Declaration readings across Texas every year. We think it is very important to recognize in these remarks the historic significance of the Declaration. It is quite understandable that not everyone admires Jefferson, given the fact he owned slaves. We owe it to the African-American community to acknowledge in a sensitive manner that the Declaration did not set one slave free. The Declaration was a historic first step in what remains an ongoing fight for liberty—a fight we as defense lawyers continue.
- TALK LOUD! Sound does not travel well outdoors. If you are expecting a large crowd, consider arranging for a sound system/microphone. Remember, your jurisdiction may require a permit for a sound system/microphone. Otherwise, individuals should be encouraged to read LOUDLY and with firm resolve, in the way it was intended to be read, making for a more dramatic ceremony. To watch an excellent example of a good reading, go to http://www.tcdla.com and see a video of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association’s reading from last year, which was powerful and inspirational.
- THE BEST SECTIONS: The best parts are the first and last. Give those to the people who are most deserving.
- BAD LINE ALERT: There is a line in the Declaration that refers to Native Americans as “savages.” However, we cannot re-write the Declaration to make it politically correct. You may choose to just read it without comment.
- BRING EXTRA COPIES: You might consider making extra copies of the Declaration for the audience. Caution: If you hand out copies before the ceremony, the audience will likely keep their eyes on the paper and not watch the actual readers, which reduces the drama of the event. It might be better to distribute the copies following the ceremony.
- OTHER SUGGESTIONS: Each city or town knows what works best for that jurisdiction. Many jurisdictions add bells and whistles to their Declaration reading ceremonies. Some wear colonial costumes. Some like to open with the Pledge of Allegiance and/or the Texas Pledge. Some sing the National Anthem (“Star-Spangled Banner”) and other patriotic songs. Some have partnered with local dignitaries to make Declaration readings a part of larger Independence Day celebrations. Whatever works best for your local organization is okay.
- This year, we are suggesting an additional reading of the Bill of Rights, since the latter document is so interconnected with the Declaration, and because criminal defense lawyers use the Bill of Rights daily. You may go to http://www.tcdla.com to view a video of last year’s Lubbock Criminal Defense Lawyers Association reading, which included a reading of the Bill of Rights, and was very well received. Info sheet: https://bit.ly/2OfZvRj.
13. VIDEO & PHOTOS: Please make sure someone who knows how to use a camera takes quality photos and videos during the reading. Proper documentation of the event is a valuable tool for local and TCDLA public relations, and a way to keep the tradition going. Post the photos on social media and make sure to identify the participants and the location. High-resolution photos and videos should also be sent to TCDLA for use in future promotions. Also, landscape—rather than portrait—is the preferred format of photos for TCDLA promotions. Send multiple shots to ensure at least one makes the cut. Remember, if the quality of your photos is poor, your reading will not show up well in TCDLA’s promotions. You will be emailed detailed information later regarding where to send your high-resolution photos and videos.
14. CREATING A TRADITION: It’s a good idea for the organizer to thank everyone for coming and wish them a Happy Independence Day. It is also a good idea to tell them to come back next year and do it again. This helps to establish a tradition. Be prepared to make a few appropriate remarks to the media in case they show up.
Thanks to all of you for volunteering your time to this wonderful statewide tradition. Without Texas criminal defense lawyers like you, this event would not succeed. It will be a success because of you.