Criminal defense attorney Tony Serra is probably one of a few of a dying breed, a true believer. Serra was the subject of the 1989 movie True Believer. Serra took a vow of poverty at age 25. Serra is now 80 and still fighting the good fight. Many think he could have been a millionaire. Most of his cases are done pro bono. Serra describes himself as an anti-lawyer lawyer and thinks the average attorney is greedy.
“The average attorney is interested in one thing: money. They’re greedy, selfish, materialistic people. A shoplifting case means a new pair of shoes. A bank robbery case means a new car. A murder case means a new house. They only think in terms of their own financial reward. I’m an anti-lawyer lawyer. I have nothing in common with the mainstream lawyer.” Attorney Tony Serra
Foreword of “Lust for Justice: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra” by renowned attorney Gerry Spence:
“I don’t like the man, Serra, very much. I have always wanted to be brave and reckless, especially facing judges and the enslaving moguls of corporate America. But I admit, I have never fully succeeded, not to my satisfaction. I have wanted to fight for the poor and give up any hint of economic security and put aside all striving for wordly things. Once I said to my darling, Imaging, I think we should sell everything we have and give it to the poor and live without devoting any of our lives to things, and she said, “All right. I’ll go with you.” I looked around and saw all of the possesssions and comforts we have and I said, “Forget it.”
I have wanted to take on the government, especially the IRS that suck us dry for a government that spends our money killing many innocent people in false wars, but I dutifully write my check each year with little more than a passing whimper.
I have wanted to fight pro bono in deserving cases that have begged for my attention. But like every law office, we have bills to pay and the loyal folks who labor with us have theirs to pay as well, and as a consequence too many deserving cases go wanting for proper representation.
These are a few of my major failures, and the reason that I don’t like Tony Serra much is because he does not suffer the same.
He has vowed poverty and I suppose he will sleep under the bridge if he must. He comes into court looking like a lost tramp in a dirty unpressed suit and tennis shoes. He isn’t afraid of judges or opposing lawyers. He doesn’t respect those who aren’t deserving of respect and isn’t hesitant to say so. He will fight an often evil, broken, judicial system like a mongoose fights snakes. He will defy the IRS on moral grounds and go to prison. He looks for a fight as if his breathing will stop without one.
This book is a story of his life. I am glad there are few (and there are only a few) audacious miscreants such as he around. He gives meaning to the word courage.
It must also be said that sometime, Tony Serra is a role model for poor judgment.
But as Justice William O. Douglas once quipped, “If you want to be a successful outlaw, you have to live within the law.” I remember Race Horse Haines, one of the great lawyers of our times, who said when he faces a trouble-some problem in the courtroom, he asks himself, “What would a real lawyer do here?” When I face a tyrant judge or an overpowering opponent, I ask, “What would Tony Serra do here?” But rarely do I have the courage to follow the answer.
Serra states he would lay down his life for one of his children if he had to but would rather they drink hemlock rather than become a government snitch. Serra chooses not to represent a client who decides to become a snitch. Watch the video below and Serra’s take on snitching: