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Like Donald Trump’s effort to cast doubt on the veracity of the November 2020 election, his second impeachment trial was rife with connections to Philadelphia.
Representing Trump in the ignominiously historic proceedings (the only time a U.S. president has been impeached twice) is a legal team full of names from the Philly region.
Attorneys defending the former president from charges he incited the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection included former Montco DA Bruce Castor (who declined to prosecute Bill Cosby), William J. Brennan — a Center City defense lawyer who, per the Inquirer, has made a career of defending alleged pedophile priests — and Michael van der Veen.
Van der Veen, who garbled the city’s name during a speech on Saturday, is a Center City personal injury lawyer known for his “Crazy Eddie”-like TV ads. He also recently sued Trump over election fraud claims
All are known more for their bombast than grasp of the fine points of the law.
Combined with their performance in Washington, this has led observers to note the moniker “Philadelphia lawyer” might need a new definition. Then again, it might not.
The changing definition of ‘Philadelphia lawyer’
According to Merriam-Webster, the phrase was originally used to describe “a lawyer knowledgeable in the most minute aspects of the law.” The first use of it in this way was recorded back in 1788, per the dictionary, when Philadelphia was the center of government and of thinking about the newly forming U.S. legal system.
The phrase stuck around, but its meaning began to change.
In the 1930s, folk singer Woody Guthrie used “Philadelphia lawyer” as the title of a parody song also known as the “Reno Blues.” In the ballad, the attorney in question is not someone to be trusted — but instead an unscrupulous fellow who seduced a married woman and (ostensibly) got shot for it.
The final three stanzas of the song describe the “gun-totin’ cowboy” husband overhearing the attorney making love with his wife, and reference the lawyer’s bleak end:
The night was as still as the desert,
The moon hangin’ high overhead.
Bill listened awhile through the window,
He could hear ev’ry word that he said:
“Your hands are so pretty and lovely,
Your form’s so rare and divine.
Come go with me to the city
And leave this wild cowboy behind.”
Now tonight back in old Pennsylvania,
Among those beautiful pines,
There’s one less Philadelphia lawyer
In old Philadelphia tonight.
The ditty became popular in the 1940s, and helped flip the term’s meaning from trustworthy to sketchy.
In a 1962 book called “Derisive Use of Ethnic Names,” author Ed Cray references the Guthrie song and lists the definition thusly: “Philadelphia lawyer — the ultimate in crooked lawyers (much to the dismay of the Pennsylvania Bar Association)”
‘My office in Philly-delphia’
Van der Veen on Saturday brought more attention to his geographic origins during a speech opposing a new decision by House impeachment managers to call for witness testimony.
“None of these depositions should be done by Zoom,” he said. “These depositions should be done in person, in my office, in Philly-delphia.”
Audible laughs immediately filled the Senate chamber.
It’s up for debate whether the amusement stemmed from the idea that witnesses like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and VP Kamala Harris should travel to van der Veen’s local office to give testimony — or that a lawyer from Philadelphia mispronounced the name of his own hometown.
He could have meant to say “Philly,” and then realized the nickname wasn’t appropriate, some observers have noted. Still, the moment created a meme that’ll last for a while.