President's Letter

Lawyers and the ABA are on front lines in protecting the bedrock of our democracy

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Photo of Patricia Lee Refo courtesy of ABA Media Relations

One of the American Bar Association’s four core goals is to “Advance the Rule of Law.” This has always been and will always be front and center for our association and profession.

The rule of law, while not always easy to define precisely, ensures an orderly, just society. It creates a system where laws are enacted by democratically elected representatives. It means no one is above the law, and no one is beneath it—the law treats all equally, and everyone is held accountable in the same way. It demands the enforcement of laws be clear and fair, the judiciary be independent and all persons be guaranteed fundamental human rights.

While the rule of law has been the foundation of America since its birth, recent events and unprecedented attacks on our institutions underscore the need to remain vigilant about protecting it. The COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing racial injustice and attempts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of presidential power have all highlighted broader challenges around justice in America.

The pandemic has created or intensified legal problems for underserved communities involving threats of eviction, debt repayment, government benefits and increases in domestic violence. As lawyers, we can contribute time, treasure or talent to addressing these unmet legal needs. The pandemic also triggered passionate debates over the reach of government in people’s lives, including the legality of public health mandates where civil liberties are at stake. Lawyers have a responsibility to contribute to these debates with civility, thoughtfulness and productive solutions.

Recent events have also laid bare—again—the racism and inequities that infect our legal and justice systems. The rule of law calls for the equal enforcement of and accountability to the law. Our justice system has not lived up to this ideal and does not live up to it today.

At the ABA, we have enhanced our work on racial equity, including through our Center for Diversity and Inclusion in the Profession, our entities and the launch of the Legal Education Police Practices Consortium, addressing police practices in partnership with more than 50 law schools.

The rule of law was shockingly put to the test Jan. 6, when the peaceful transfer of power was threatened by false claims of voter fraud and a violent mob at the Capitol. While the 2020 election results were contested, the rule of law ultimately prevailed. Claims were investigated, audits and recounts conducted, and dozens of lawsuits challenging the election results were carefully and openly considered by independent courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. People are free to disagree with any court’s decision. They are not free to disobey it.

The events of the past year have reminded us that the rule of law can be fragile if not actively protected. Now is the time for lawyers to help educate Americans on the rule of law’s importance. This year’s Law Day theme is “Advancing the Rule of Law, Now,” reminding us that we the people share the responsibility to promote the rule of law, defend liberty and pursue justice. Across the country, lawyers will celebrate Law Day by leading or participating in school and community programs that reinforce the concept, as Ben Franklin is purported to have remarked, that our government is not a monarchy but “a republic, if we can keep it.”

Lawyers also can advance the rule of law through the ABA’s annual grassroots lobbying effort—“ABA Day 2021: Advocacy for Justice”—on April 20-21. Through advocating for Legal Services Corp. funding, you can support legal aid agencies across the country and use your influence to increase access to justice and assist in creating a more equitable system.

Lawyers are on the front lines in advancing the rule of law. We must constantly strive to improve our institutions in service to the rights of all to justice, fairness and equity. The ABA and bar associations throughout the nation stand ready to support your work.

This story was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Bedrock of Our Democracy: Lawyers, ABA on front lines in protecting the rule of law.”

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