A Real Page-Turner
With books and videotapes overflowing from shelves in his small Uptown office, the pursuit of education is one of Jerry Stevens's defining characteristics. An attorney with an active practice, he's now completing a master's degree in psychology; his thesis is on the recovery of the soul in the wilderness. He enjoys talking about books that intrigue him, like "The Psychology of the Chess Player," or rattling off quotes that make him think, like one from T. E. Lawrence about how those who dream during the day are "dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes to make it possible."
So when Stevens decided, during a workshop at the Bouchercon 2000 World Mystery Convention last October, that the conference seminars should count toward his state-required continuing legal education credits, he wasn't trying to get out of anything.
"Education has never been a problem for me," he says. "I'm relentless about it."
The Colorado Supreme Court requires attorneys to complete 45 units of continuing legal education every three years. Having already completed forty units, Stevens submitted his application to the state Board of Continuing Legal and Judicial Education last December, requesting eleven more. He enclosed a course guide highlighting some of the convention's workshops.
The board denied his application, however, instigating a bitter dispute over the matter and piquing another of Stevens's defining characteristics: attitude.
In April, Stevens appeared before the board in a blue silk jogging outfit and sneakers to appeal the decision. "It's just incredulous to me that I'm denied the opportunity to use my imagination, my creativity, and apply that to what's gonna increase my competence in the law," he said. "The classes are related to the professional competence of me as a lawyer. Without question." He then reminded the board that other fields of learning translate well to law by referencing Krapp's Last Tape, a play by Samuel Beckett, and expounding on the relationship between psychoanalysis and Method acting.
After the hearing, Alan Ogden, executive director of the board, wrote to Stevens to remind him that, according to regulations, "continuing legal education must be an educational activity which has as its primary objective the increase of professional competence of registered attorneys and judges." In "rare instances," credit has been given when an attorney could convince the board that an educational activity not covered in the rules still had value for that attorney, he added. "Therefore, in order to claim credit for attendance at 'World Mystery Conference,' you must relate, in detail, how those sessions for which you desire credit are relevant to your current practice and will improve your professional competence."
Since Stevens felt he had already elaborated on the merits of the classes during the hearing, being asked to do so again was, as he wrote on April 18 in a response to Ogden, "onerous and oppressive" and a sign of Ogden's vindictiveness. "Sadly, it is the history of this country that cowardly individuals use the power of their institutions to oppress those in dissent or who seek to be themselves," he concluded.
He then wrote a letter to Colorado Supreme Court Justice Nancy Rice to complain about the board and to spell out the details of the workshops.
Stevens says he attended the convention, which featured famous authors such as Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard, because he enjoys reading mystery novels and would like to become a writer.
He took classes on DNA testing. ("Do I mention it is on the cutting edge of police investigation, thus proof in court?" he wrote. "Need I say that trying to understand the science of DNA is likely to confront all criminal lawyers?") A psychiatrist gave a talk on a murder case titled "Getting Inside the Head of a Murderer." ("Not only did I learn techniques to gain insight into human motivations and acts, but also obstacles one encounters in presenting a unique defense in a criminal case," he wrote.) He attended an hour-long session on the difference between fact and fiction. ("Trial is the art of storytelling.") A coroner spoke on the forensics of autopsies and what evidence they can reveal. ("It is clear to me a criminal lawyer needs a wide and varied knowledge of other disciplines.") An FBI agent spoke about methods and uses of criminal profiling. ("Need I mention racial profiling and motions practice in criminal cases?") He also heard presentations from judges and police officers who talked about the justice system from their point of view.
Rice forwarded Stevens's letter to David Little, chairman of the continuing education board, who returned fire on May 3 with his own note. "Your attitude severely compromises the Board's ability to deal with situations such as yours in an efficient and objective manner," Little wrote. "There is absolutely no excuse or justification for your attitude or the language you have used in addressing the administrative staff. The charges you have suggested are totally unfounded." He added that it was Ogden who was willing to consider giving credit for the Bouchercon courses at all. "Your vilification of Mr. Ogden is unfounded and inexcusable."
As Ogden had done, Little reqested that Stevens submit a written explanation of why the conference workshops should count. "I suggest you do this without the invectives of cowardice, vindictiveness and stupidity...If you want the credit, you will do this by May 30, 2001, and you will do it in a professional manner."
On May 29, Stevens responded, calling Little's letter "presumptuous and insulting" and suggesting that Little save his "chastisement" for his children and grandchildren. He quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous nugget about consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds and continued: "Regarding attitude, I am proud of and satisfied with mine. To quote Emerson again, 'Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.'" In closing, he wrote, "I do not fear you and will not tolerate your threats." He also sent Little two articles about the importance of DNA analysis for criminal attorneys. "Again, my practice is almost wholly criminal," he concluded. "The Mystery Conference Sessions for which I seek credit were taught by professionals in the area of criminal law and practice."
Though Stevens has yet to hear back from Little, he does have the support of U.S. District Judge John Kane, who thinks Stevens has a point in trying to pursue alternate modes of legal education. Kane thinks the continuing legal education board should be flexible, permitting, for instance, lawyers to earn credit for acting in community theater. "It would certainly help me hear them when they got into the courtroom," he says.
Kane was on the original committee that devised the continuing legal education standards. "It's unfortunately like everything else: a good idea that's turned into a bureaucratic quagmire," he says. Though young attorneys may benefit from mock trial situations, and continuing programs in specialty areas such as patent and real-estate law are helpful, Kane says that for most attorneys, the value of continuing legal education is dubious. "It's regarded by lawyers as like having to pay your taxes."
Neither Ogden nor Little would comment for this story, saying that Supreme Court regulations forbid them from speaking about the matter.
Stevens himself alternates between blistering anger over the situation to a kind of intoxicating self-regard. "Was I too arrogant? Was I too confident?" he asks about his comments at the hearing. "Was I too aggressive? Or was it that good?" Then he laughs and jumps in the air.
The case is still pending. If Stevens loses, he says, "I'm gonna take the most obscure five hours that doesn't have anything to do with being a lawyer, and they'll rubber-stamp it."
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