February 4, 2013
A Profound Responsibility
Have you ever thought about how fragile our constitutional system can be? It rests on a compact among all of us to respect and obey the institutions our Constitution established and to challenge those institutions only through peaceful means. Remarkably, for most of our history, that compact has held; however, when individuals or states stand in defiance of the nation's constitutional institutions, our constitutional system threatens to unravel. Lawyers have a solemn obligation to preserve the rule of law against those who would break apart the compact that holds the nation together. We need to instill in our students that same sense of duty.
One hundred fifty years ago, the compact unraveled, of course, during the Civil War. It was restored only after the nation lost half a million lives.
A generation ago, it threatened to unravel again during the 1950's and 1960's, when the Supreme Court struck down segregation in the schools. The governors of Arkansas and Alabama personally blocked the entrances of schools in defiance of the Supreme Court's conclusion that "separate but equal" had no place in public education. Federal troops forced them to allow black students to attend the schools.
Today, a startling rise in militant groups threatens another unraveling. Claiming a superior interpretation of the Second Amendment, segments of the militia movement are saying they will defend their interpretation of the Constitution with armed resistance if necessary. Unlike peaceful gun rights advocates, these militant groups strike at the very foundation of the rule of law by elevating their own understanding of the Constitution above all others and glorifying civil war. They advocate -- whether or not they understand they are doing so -- anarchy, where everyone is a law unto himself.
We, as those who educate the next generation of lawyers, have a profound responsibility to help our students understand their duty to uphold the compact that keeps our constitutional system vital. We must inspire in them the sacred duty of our profession to preserve and foster a respect for law among their fellow citizens.
It is easy for students to become cynical about the law, especially if their first foray into the field has yielded disappointing academic results. We have a duty to fight that cynicism and keep our students' eyes on the larger picture -- the justice system lawyers uphold.
As we work with students, central to our efforts should be an emphasis on why they are mastering the skills we are teaching. We need to draw connections, for example, between what they are doing to prepare for class and what they will have to do to represent a client effectively. We should help them discover why particular courses are important and why they should work to master them whether they find them interesting or not.
Most importantly, we should deliberately foster in them an appreciation of the law itself as worthy of their best efforts. It is easy to play to their short-term motivations, especially when they are resistant to our advice. Valuable as that appeal may be, it should complement a more noble appeal to the rule of law as the heart and soul of our national identity and the special responsibility of the profession they have entered.