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September 2018Volume 49Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Chair’s column: Truth and the law

This is not a political column. Rather, it is a statement of profound concern from the chair about the increasing number of attacks on the profession I love.

In recent months, lawyers and non-lawyers alike have made extraordinary statements to the public about our legal process. And, sadly, some attorneys have even abused the laws.

Most recently, we have been told by a well-known New York attorney that the “truth isn’t always truth.” Others have publicly stated a jury verdict should not be recognized because, at its core, the case was part of a witch hunt. Justices on state supreme courts are facing the prospect of impeachment, not so much for high crimes, but apparently for the violation of being identified as members of the opposition party from legislative representatives of their states. To some, it’s acceptable to lie to the FBI, to a grand jury, or otherwise under oath, if you disapprove of the proceeding, or deem that laws on our books should not be applied to them. What we learned as sacred from our first year in law school from taking civil procedure and criminal law courses is suddenly turned upside down.

Truth is at the core of our legal profession, and with each astounding statement attacking that ideal, our judicial system is diminished. We take seriously oaths to tell the truth, to uphold and follow the law, and view them as essential to a democracy. Selectively deciding when it is convenient to be truthful, and when it is expedient to lie, is foreign to our legal training and our lives as attorneys and respected members of this society.
The cumulative effect of these attacks undoubtedly erodes the public’s confidence in the law. As the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law recently opined: “The courts are bulwarks of our Constitution and laws, and they depend on the public to respect their judgments and on officials to obey and enforce their decisions. Fear of personal attacks, public backlash, or enforcement failures should not color judicial decision-making, and public officials have a responsibility to respect courts and judicial decisions. Separation of powers is not a threat to democracy; it is the essence of democracy.” (June 5 2017)
Kevin D. Judd and Keith Watters likewise sounded the alarm over the serious and damaging nature of the attacks on the judiciary when they wrote in the June 2018 in the American Bar Association Journal: “When citizens lose confidence with the branch of government responsible for interpreting the laws, all of our institutions are diminished.”

What can be done to counter this drumbeat of negative pressure being placed on our legal system? As responsible practicing lawyers and judges, we must speak out to defend our judicial system. Family, friends, and colleagues should hear from us, and be made aware that these outrageous statements are not only harmful to our society but harm the benefits of living in a democratic society governed by the rule of law. This is not a partisan issue. It is an American one.

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