Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard made it his business to stick up in court for the outcast, the powerless, the criminal, the despised, the people with sideways views. For that advocacy, the people of Utah owe him a great debt.
Like Socrates, Barnard was a community gadfly. Unlike Socrates, he was not put to death by the state, although it's a safe bet that many government lawyers fantasized about just that. He apparently died a natural death in his sleep this week.
Among his more important legal victories, he helped to win a $33 million settlement for Utah's Navajos over the state's administration of a trust fund that holds royalties from oil drilling on tribal land. The dogged fight took 18 years. He also took action to protect the voting rights of Navajos in San Juan County.
In other cases, he won judgments against overcrowding in the state's prisons and jails. He fought against gender discrimination, taking the side of women who were denied membership in Salt Lake City's exclusive Alta Club and the state's Elks Lodges. He won a settlement against the University of Utah when it tore down shanties on campus that had been erected in protest of apartheid in South Africa.
He championed the legal rights of polygamists and dissident Mormons, and he fought against unconstitutional state advocacy of religion in the form of plaques of the 10 Commandments in city parks and crosses to memorialize fallen Utah Highway Patrol officers on state lands.
Besides all that, Barnard provided good sport. It was a guilty pleasure to watch him tweak the establishment. He was a skilled attorney, good at his job.
He fought a running battle with the Utah State Bar for a couple of decades over issues like whether attorneys could advertise, whether the bar could keep its salaries secret and whether lawyers could be required to pay the portion of their dues that went for lobbying. In one of his earlier skirmishes with the bar association in 1980, he sued for the ability to identify himself as a lawyer in letters to the editor in Salt Lake City newspapers. What could be more fun than watching lawyers savage each other in court over issues that didn't matter to the rest of us?
We didn't always agree with Barnard's positions or those of his clients. But it is important in a diverse society for people with minority views to have skilled advocates because it causes the majority to examine its own wisdom and the rightness of the status quo. Often, Brian Barnard helped change things for the better.