In the United States, as in no other nation that has ever existed, the rule of law is paramount and rightly revered as the bedrock of our free and open American society. Even the most cursory reading of our Declaration of Independence and our federal Constitution compels both respect for the revolutionary principles of liberty and equality under law so eloquently expressed therein and a profound admiration for the Founding Fathers and Framers. As lawyers, it is our unique privilege to participate in the American legal system and our sworn duty to uphold the rule of law that it serves. Yet, with the commencement of another year amidst a national atmosphere of prevalent individual and corporate misdeeds and ever-growing global chaos, it behooves us as Americans and as lawyers to examine the status of the rule of law in America today.
The rule of law denotes a legal system whereby the standards of conduct to which all are held accountable are predicated upon laws and regulations validly enacted or adopted by duly and democratically elected representatives of the governed, equitably and uniformly enforced by the executive authority, and subject to interpretation and review by an independent and impartial judiciary. Under the rule of law, there is no place for the whims or caprices of despots or tyrants.
In the international arena, we may legitimately view the violence and terrorism that lamentably punctuate so much of overseas life as the aberrational acts of countries and groups that do not share or accept our values and ideals. Domestically, however, with our country beset with a plethora of violent crimes such as child kidnappings, school shootings, road rage, and drug-related offenses, along with massive and unprecedented corporate avarice and clergy scandal, it is not so easy to dispel a growing suspicion that in contemporary America, respect for the rule of law has somehow diminished. If such is the case, as lawyers we must ask why and attempt to reverse it. While there must indeed be a multitude of reasons for this disturbing decline in respect for the rule of law, the following general observations are offered:
In this post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, too many of our citizenry have expressed their indifference and even outright mistrust for our government, erroneously blaming the system for the flaws and mistakes of individuals. Since the rule of law, like democratic government itself, rests upon the consent of the governed, true consent exists only when a majority of the body politic is actively engaged in all facets of the democratic process.
Some Americans, disillusioned and disengaged, have therefore abandoned the American ethos and abdicated their civic responsibilities in favor of special interest groups touting their narrowly focused agendas with little regard for the commonweal. As attorneys we are challenged to combat today’s disaffection with, and disassociation from, the institutions that safeguard our freedoms.
On such diverse matters as the death penalty, reproductive rights, immigration reform, national health care, campaign financing, corporate accountability, and a host of other issues, the American people have been so perennially fractured that it has not been possible to formulate and implement truly meaningful and widely accepted policies or programs.
Although reasoned discussion and debate are the hallmarks of our political discourse, in the persistent absence of any clear guidelines or common ground on the controversial legal issues facing our country, the rule of law, mired in uncertainty, can only suffer. However, by virtue of training and experience, American lawyers can lead their fellow countrymen toward the common ground needed to unify our nation’s much-needed and overdue assault upon its endemic legal problems.
Present-day, security-conscious America, with its barricaded and tightly guarded public office buildings, courthouses, high-rises, and airports is far removed in spirit from the openness of the past as, for example, when newly elected President Andrew Jackson invited even rough frontiersmen to his inaugural celebration. In truth, today’s retrofitted government buildings can have the effect of making the average citizen feel like an unwelcome interloper in the very system created to serve his needs.
Furthermore, since every technological advance has its corresponding counter-measure, the ever increasing (and alarming) use of technology to screen and scrutinize the populace in all aspects of daily life will not ensure true security. Real security, unlike the trappings of same, will come only when all are pledged to respect the rights of others, a goal to which we as lawyers must re-dedicate our efforts, not only as practitioners but as the natural leaders of our communities.
As leaders we must be ever vigilant against unjustified infringements upon our liberties and willing to challenge unwarranted intrusions irrespective of political rectitude. Lawyers above all are charged with ensuring that the exigencies of the moment do not endanger or undermine the principles espoused by the Framers. Because of the difficulties inherent in achieving a national consensus, too many Americans, lawyers included, have chosen the path of expediency, acquiescing or remaining silent when neither course is right. As lawyers we especially must also reject any culture that tolerates, encourages, or rewards wrongdoing, whether in the classroom, boardroom, or courtroom.
While America remains the world’s
best hope, the present era of lawlessness only weakens our prestige and stature abroad. America’s greatest strength has not been in the power of her arms but in the power of her message to the world. Because of past divisiveness and current social and political malaise, however, too few Americans have championed our country’s cause, leaving a vacuum both at home and around the globe.
Lawyers, like all Americans, must shed the paralysis of the present. In our professional and personal lives we should endeavor to exemplify productive adherence to the rule of law. By our example, we can illustrate to our fellow citizens and the global community that by limiting the power of government, the rule of law has empowered us all. To whatever degree the legal profession has been remiss in protecting, preserving, and promoting the rule of law in America, in even greater measure we must now resolve to restore the rule of law to its deserved former glory.
Let us begin today.
Robert Phillip Ward is principal of Robert Phillip Ward & Associates, and is actively engaged in the practice of law in Cook and DuPage Counties. He received his B.A., magna cum laude from Loyola University of Chicago in 1974, and his J.D. with honors from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1977.