Annual Meeting 2011

ABA President Calls for Return to Civility; Breyer Notes Justices Don't Raise Voices in Chambers

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

“Civility used to be inherent in public discourse,” Zack said in an address this evening to the Opening Assembly of the ABA’s 2011 Annual Meeting in Toronto. “Where did we go wrong?”

Too often today, said Zack, whose one-year term as president ends Tuesday, the approach people take to political discussion and debate is characterized by an attitude that, as he described it, “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 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.

Zack, who is administrative partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Miami, urged the ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates to adopt a recommendation by the Section of Dispute Resolution when it convenes Monday. The recommendation affirms that civility is a foundation of the rule of law. The House is scheduled to adjourn Tuesday.

“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.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer picked up on Zack’s theme in his own address to the Opening Assembly, in which he emphasized the importance of understanding civics to help make democracy work. It was a theme Breyer also sounded earlier Saturday in a program he shared with retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“The justices often disagree,” Breyer said, “but I never heard a voice raised in those chambers in 17 years.”

But, said Breyer, recognizing that conflicts are part of America’s history helps makes it easier to understand this nation’s institutions and how they work to advance the rule of law. Breyer said that one reason why he enjoys serving on the Supreme Court is that “I know I’ll see the same thing again in the fall term: people of all backgrounds. There is no view in this country so crazy that someone doesn’t hold it, and they all come to the courtroom.”

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