The Idealist

The late Warren Burnett was the last of his breed: a passionate defender of the little guy—and of the now-radical notion that there's honor in being a trial lawyer.

WHEN WARREN BURNETT, THE FAMOUS Odessa trial lawyer, died in September at age 75, memories flooded back of people accused of crimes, jailed labor organizers, segregated students, and countless others crushed by the boots of big business and big government. But mostly I thought of myself. Warren, the son of a Virginia miner, was a lifelong champion of the poor and the oppressed, and in 1968 nobody was poorer or more oppressed than me, or so I believed at the time. Those were the days of the anti-war and civil rights movements, and anyone a wee bit off center faced the wrath of the establishment. I’d accidentally and innocently given a joint to a hairball who turned out to be a federal narcotics agent, and I could have been sent away for life.

Though I had never met Warren, he was recruited by a friend to help me and enthusiastically came to my rescue, bringing with him some of the finest legal talent in Texas—Malcolm McGregor, Sam Houston Clinton, and Babe Schwartz—and at no cost to me. Since I was a writer rather than, say, a chimney sweep, I considered this my due. I didn’t want a mere acquittal; I wanted an apology. One morning, during pretrial preparation, I launched into a tirade on the injustice of it all, citing the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta, and Martin Luther’s 95 theses and quoting Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran. Warren stopped me with a raised hand and said in his wonderfully melodious growl, “Cartwright, if they do send you to the Big Rodeo, don’t tell them you’re a writer.”

Nobody could cut through the crap like Warren Burnett. I’ve never known a smarter, wittier, or more insightful man. At a hearing in the mid-seventies to determine the location of a new university in West Texas, the chairman of the Higher Education Coordinating Board asked Warren if he honestly believed there was justification for a four-year college in Odessa. “Mr. Chairman,” Warren beamed, “there’s enough ignorance in Odessa to justify an eight-year college.”

Warren was a hard-traveled nihilist who rode his big Harley across Mexico, flew his Tri-Pacer through thunderstorms, and disdained the therapeutic values of sleep and sobriety. He was bighearted, cynical, generous, obstreperous, and always ready to mix it up. Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins called him “the least sentimental idealist I ever knew.” He always claimed that his acts of grace and altruism were nothing more than manifestations of ego and too many varieties of mood modifiers. Causes were his passion and also his weakness—his favorites were the Texas Civil Liberties Union, the United Farm Workers, and the Raza Unida party—but he pandered to no ideology. Molly wrote that he agreed to defend a Farm Workers organizer only if the Farm Workers explained to him what “chick-a-noes” were. “He was making fun of the then-new, politically correct term ‘chicanos,’” she explained. Warren was a leftist in the old, pure sense, convinced that the system was fixed in favor of the rich and powerful and that the workers would eventually rise up and smite the bastards. The back seat of whatever junker he happened to be driving was usually full of beer cans and left-wing leaflets dating back to the fifties. He was the only person I know who retained membership in the International Workers of the World into the twenty-first century. As far as I know, his dues were paid up when he died.

In the courtroom, Warren overwhelmed. He had a superior intellect and the

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