Lawyers should lead a national civics lesson

Below is an article by Zach Carter, which I think hits a timely note. The article is adapted from remarks given to the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest on February 28, when Mr. Carter accepted the association’s 2006 Public Interest Law & Society Award.

At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, there are some things that we, as a community of lawyers, need to consider.

We are experiencing an unprecedented erosion, not of our liberties or of our values, but of the value we place on our liberties. I am no longer surprised when someone proclaims over our national airwaves that some one or another of our liberties must be sacrificed on the altar of national security. What I find deeply disturbing is the increasingly indifferent reaction of the American people.

Was it 9/11 that traumatized the American psyche and precipitated this change in attitude? That’s the easy answer, but I don’t believe it.

Long before 9/11, with the help of any number of political demagogues and angry talk radio windbags, Americans were already beginning to value expediency over due process, and might over right. We had already grown comfortable with shouting down minority viewpoints. We had already begun to view our courts not as protectors of our freedoms, but inconvenient obstacles to obtaining our short-ranged and often short-sighted objectives.

I do not believe that 9/11 was the cause of this erosion of faith in our values and institutions, but it certainly accelerated the process. 9/11 elicited in us what political demagogues have always effectively exploited: our fears and our anger. And that fear and anger have numbed the senses of many Americans.

I keep waiting for a headline sufficiently jarring to illicit the righteous indignation of the Founding Fathers.

Headline: The Justice Department announced today that it’s just too darned hard to convict defendants under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Consequently, we are going to designate a whole class of folks who can be held without charges indefinitely. Hope you don’t mind.

Headline: If you make a transatlantic call to your loved ones back home (and God help you if your homeland is in the Middle East), we’re going to be listening in. No warrant, no judge, can’t bother. Hope you don’t mind.

What happened to the righteous indignation of the Founding Fathers? I know 9/11 was a traumatic experience. But I have a feeling that facing a few thousand well-armed British redcoats was not exactly a walk in the park.

I think the real reason that Americans have not reacted in ways we would expect is that we have permitted our values and our system to be redefined by persons and forces that have no interest in preserving either.

Our traditional American values can get in the way of making a buck. Due process gets in the way of punishing our enemies. And in ways some people aren’t happy about, our system of justice neutralizes unfair advantages of wealth, political power and monopoly so that the grievances of the poor and the underserved can be heard and redressed.

If the soul of our nation is to be saved, the American people must be reminded of the importance of the values and processes that set us apart.

Who can do that? I would suggest that it is the legal profession that must lead a national civics lesson that reminds the American people of the importance of the values we have always held dear.

We who are trained in the law and who understand the role of our Constitution must overcome the insistent demands for expediency over process. It is our profession that must help Americans understand that democracy is hard, but worth the effort. We are the ones who must explain why taking someone’s liberty should be hard … why condemning someone’s home in favor of private commercial development should be hard … why closing down a vitally needed hospital in an underserved community should be hard … why making the environmental case for drilling for oil in a pristine wilderness should be hard.

We as a profession must seize every opportunity to challenge every threat to our liberties, values and processes, not just in court, but in op-ed pieces and panels; in our conversations with our friends and neighbors. And if you are going to be a talking head on some news broadcast, please make it count. There are plenty of folks paid to entertain. Let’s accept our responsibility to inform.

Our profession has the opportunity to play an heroic role at a pivotal point in our nation’s history. At a time when many, many young men and women are dying for their country, we as a profession must accept the responsibility for reminding Americans of values that make this country worth dying for.

Zach Carter is a partner in the New York Trial Group of the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney and co-chair of Dorsey’s White Collar Crime and Civil Fraud practice. This article has been posted with the permission of the author.

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