Our obligation as lawyers to defend democracy

Our obligation as lawyers to defend democracy

By Mitchel L. Winick and Jackie Gardina

Our democratic republic is approaching its 250th year anniversary which, unfortunately, makes it easy to take it for granted. However, it is not an overstatement to believe that democracy and the democratic process are currently under attack in our country. We are being confronted by one of the most polarized, divisive, and dangerous political and social periods in recent history. Over the past several years, we have witnessed increasingly hateful rhetoric by members of the public and even elected officials at the local, state, and national level. Physical confrontations at local school board meetings, city council sessions, and an armed mob attack on the nation’s capital are urgent warnings that the rule of law and our democratic institutions are at risk.

As American lawyers, we consider the Constitution and respect for the rule of law to be the foundation of our democracy. This is such an important principle that, as a condition of licensure, we take an oath to support both our U.S. and state constitutions. If it has been a while since you took or administered the attorney’s oath, in California, it is the following:

I solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney and counselor at law to the best of my knowledge and ability. As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy, and integrity.  California Attorney’s Oath https://www.calbar.ca.gov/Admissions/Examinations/California-Bar-Examination/Attorneys-Oath

As members of the legal profession and sworn officers of the court, there is no question that we have an important role to play in navigating our country and our communities through these challenging times. In this context, perhaps we should take a step back to consider whether, individually and collectively, we are adequately meeting our professional obligations to come to the defense of democracy, the rule of law, and the Constitution.

As attorneys, we have the professional, intellectual, and educational skills to define, discuss, and educate about the distinctions between legal vs. illegal behavior, honest vs. fraudulent allegations, and factual vs. false narratives.

In fact, we have taken an oath to do so.

If we remain silent when members of our profession, and in rare cases, members of the judiciary, intentionally abuse the justice system by pursuing lawsuits without legal foundation or fact, publicly advocate claims that they know have been judicially determined to be without legal basis, fail to recuse in cases that appear to have specific conflicts of interest, and act openly and publicly in violation of the attorney’s oath . . .

. . . then as lawyers, law professors, and judges we are sitting idle when we have a professional and ethical obligation to act.

Can there be any doubt that we, as lawyers, have an obligation to – defend the process, participation in, and outcomes of free and fair elections – demand the timely investigation, judgement, and discipline of lawyers, judges, and elected officials who violate legal and ethical standards – and support equal access to justice and protection of our Constitutional rights, regardless of ideology, financial ability, origin, or identity?

These are not issues that can be disregarded by the legal profession under the excuse that they are merely issues of partisan politics and not fundamental attacks against the rule of law. Abandonment of the rule of law cannot be dismissed as politics-as-usual in the face of violent insurrection and the mainstreaming of hate-based rhetoric within our political parties and in our public dialogue.

What weighs in the balance are the foundational Constitutional protections that define our democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, and freedom to participate in free and fair elections. History has taught us that the sustainability of these freedoms requires vigilance and a commitment to act when it is necessary to defend democracy and enforce the rule of law.

And that is the obligation that we have accepted as lawyers.

Although attribution of the quote, “all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent,” may be disputed (with apologies to Edmund Burke), the point is well made. Therefore, what steps should we be taking as lawyers of good conscience to speak out in defense of democracy?

First and foremost, we need to identify more ways to actively and publicly work together . . . regardless of politics, ideology, or identity . . . to be leaders in our communities speaking out against false, divisive, and hateful rhetoric. We need to accept responsibility to stand up to those who attack the most vulnerable in our communities and use our knowledge and ability, as required by our oath, to defend their rights and provide access to justice. Finally, we need to have zero tolerance for members of our profession who intentionally, openly, and repeatedly violate our professional ethics.

In this new year, let’s commit to work together as lawyers to remind all members of our community that democracy must not be taken for granted and that the rights, privileges, and freedoms that are guaranteed under the Constitution and protected by the rule of law are essential to another pledge that we each have taken as Americans . . . to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.

California Accredited Law School Deans Mitchel L. Winick (Monterey College of Law) and Jackie Gardina (The Colleges of Law) are cohosts of the new podcast SideBar (www.sidebarmedia.org) on the Legal Talk Network that discusses current challenges to our individual constitutional and civil rights. Comments are welcome at www.sidebarmedia.org/comments.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Santa Cruz County Bar Association or the official policies of the SCCBA.

The SCCBA encourages our members to contribute letters, articles and/or responses.All submissions can be sent to lori@santacruzbar.org.