Justice to the Core
Emphasis on basic values will help promote the rule of law and our role in it
Posted Sep 1, 2008 7:00 AM CST
By H. Thomas Wells Jr.
The American Bar Association’s national perspective and influence are what make us unique and most effective. We bring together lawyers from across the country—and around the world—to share best practices, to network and to strengthen our profession’s national voice.
As much as our varied perspectives give us strength and credibility, we must also focus on the common core values all lawyers share. For my year as ABA president that began in August, I will emphasize four of these values: access to justice, independence of the bar and judiciary, diversity and the rule of law.
Access to justice is a value in which all lawyers have a stake, and the ABA advances this on a variety of fronts. We support access-to-justice programs through the work of our sections, divisions and forums, and through our Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, Center on Children and the Law, and Special Committee on Death Penalty representation. We also provide expertise from our commissions on Youth at Risk, Domestic Violence, Homelessness and Poverty, Immigration, Law and Aging, Mental and Physical Disability Law, and our Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice.
Another core value is independence. Ethics codes and disciplinary enforcement make the law a self-regulating profession. The surest way to protect the bar’s independence is to show we adhere to the strictest standards of ethics and professionalism. The activities of our Center for Professional Responsibility are indispensable in this regard. We must also uphold judicial independence. When politicians castigate judges for opinions that are legally sound but politically unpopular, it weakens the rule of law. So does the widespread, stubborn partisanship in many state judicial elections, to say nothing of the appointment process for federal judges. Through our Standing Committee on Judicial Independence and other entities, we will continue to reinforce that political influence has no place in our courts.
Diversity is a third core value of our profession. When gifted women and men of diverse backgrounds face systemic barriers to entering law school and practicing law, it diminishes the ability of all lawyers to serve an increasingly complex and diverse society. Our Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity provides nationally regarded resources on pipeline programs, opportunities in the profession and broader issues of justice. Expertise is also provided by our commissions on Women in the Profession, Mental and Physical Disability Law, and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
PARTS OF A WHOLE
Diversity, independence and access to justice are critical to a fourth core value: the rule of law. Our Rule of Law Initiative provides technical legal assistance in more than 40 emerging democracies worldwide. Activities are primarily funded not by membership dues but by grants from USAID and other sources. They provide wonderful opportunities for lawyers in America to share their expertise with lawyers overseas.They also strengthen our profession’s international ties as our world becomes more global, and they remind us that our law-based society should never be taken for granted.
The rule of law is not only an overseas issue. We have our own dilemmas here at home, such as how to preserve our liberties while ensuring national security. The rule of law is also challenged by problems such as inadequate resources for public defenders and counsel in capital cases, lack of access to civil justice, and racial discrimination and injustice.
These are not partisan issues. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, business lawyers and human rights lawyers alike can find common ground on the core values that shape the rule of law and the legal profession’s role in it. Only one L-word defines us—lawyer.
The upcoming transition in Washington presents a golden opportunity to promote our core values with the new administration and Congress, which we will do with help from the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office. Thank you for your support as we work together.