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From Many Voices, A Call for Public Civility

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Photo of outgoing ABA President, Steve Zack, at the ABA Annual Meeting by Stephanie Lake/Canadian Press.

Outgoing ABA President Stephen N. Zack called on lawyers to take the lead in returning civility to a public arena that has come to be dominated by anger and insult.

Speaking at the opening assembly of the 2011 annual meeting, Zack said, “Civility used to be inherent in public discourse. Where did we go wrong?”

Zack, administrative partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Miami, said the approach people take to political discussion and debate is characterized by an attitude that, as he described it, too often becomes “I disagree with you—and not only that, but you’re a bum and I’m going to yell so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

That tone cannot continue, Zack (pictured at right) told a packed audience at Koerner Hall in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. “The continuing slide into the gutter of incivility demeans us all,” he said. “As lawyers, we must still honor civility,” Zack said. “Words matter. How we treat others matters. The way others treat us matters—not only for today, but for generations to come.”


Zack’s theme was echoed by the co-recipients of the ABA medal, the association’s highest award, during a ceremony in the House of Delegates.

David Boies and Theodore B. Olson co-chair the ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System. But their careers as litigators have been intertwined for years, during which they worked as both adversaries and co-counsel on some of the most controversial cases in recent years. They were on opposing sides when Bush v. Gore went before the U.S. Supreme Court, but they worked together in their representation of two California couples who were precluded from marrying because of Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage rights in the state.

“It is a lot more fun to have Olson on my side for a change,” said Boies, founder and chairman of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, based in Armonk, N.Y.

“Respect and congeniality for one another, for courts, for the rule of law and the legal system are required of us by the profession and our ethics and code of conduct,” said Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general who is a Washington, D.C., partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “Anger and hostility are among the most corrosive things we can experience, and it eats us up. Our profession is based upon honest and admirable advocacy.”

The House of Delegates also endorsed a renewed commitment to civility. It adopted a measure recommended by the Section of Dispute Resolution that “affirms the principle of civility as a foundation for democracy and the rule of law, and urges lawyers to set a high standard for civil discourse as an example for others in resolving differences constructively and without disparagement of others.”

The resolution calls on government officials, candidates for political office and others in the public realm to strive for the same goals of civil discourse.

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