On July 4th, we commemorate the founding of our great nation. So now is a good time to remember that, as John Adams famously remarked, we are “a government of laws, and not of men.”
As America celebrates its 241st anniversary, we, as lawyers, should reflect on the vital role our profession has played in the building, governance, and preservation of our democracy.
From its inception, the United States was led by lawyers. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 25 were lawyers; as were 32 of the 55 framers of the Constitution.
Throughout our country’s history, lawyers have been at the forefront of the growth, strength, and integrity of America. Attorneys wrote treaties that ended wars, kept the peace and promoted trade. They battled for the freedom, rights and education of people who could not fight on their own. Most may not be household names, but their accomplishments are known worldwide.
Robert Livingston, a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which nearly doubled the size of the country and opened it to westward expansion.
Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman, fought tirelessly for the abolition of slavery. In 1851, he successfully represented a group of slaves who fled to safety in Pennsylvania as they faced a treason charge in the Christiana Riot case. During the Civil War, he encouraged Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And after the war, he helped develop what became the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice Robert H. Jackson, when asked by President Harry S. Truman, took a leave from the Supreme Court to prosecute Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials. Adhering to the rule of law and the legal process, Nuremberg was a major step in the development of international humanitarian law.
Thurgood Marshall argued before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education and won a unanimous decision, which held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Elizabeth Dole implemented safety requirements, such as seat belts and air bags, in her time as Secretary of Transportation. Now she assures veteran’s caregivers are recognized and supported.
Today, lawyers patriotically answer the call when the rule of law is endangered. When immigrants and refugees were stranded at U.S. airports earlier this year, pro-bono attorneys from across the country rushed in and provided representation.
Indeed, lawyers provide more pro bono hours than any other profession, tens of millions of hours a year. Last year, law students in the Class of 2016 logged 2.2 million pro bono hours alone. Sacrificing and giving back to our fellow citizens is one of the purest forms of patriotism.
But it still is not enough. Too many Americans do not have adequate access to justice. Wealth and income play an oversized role in our system and too often determine who wins and who loses.
People who cannot afford bail are held for long periods of time before trial even when they pose no flight risk or danger to society. Some jurisdictions have resorted to imposing fees on all phases of the justice system, from receiving a public defender to paying for your own incarceration and even ankle-monitoring device. When defendants cannot pay these fines and fees, they are incarcerated in what amounts to a modern-day debtors’ prison.
Public defender offices are overwhelmed and underfunded and cannot adequately handle the caseloads given to them. When it comes to access to civil justice, the situation is worse. More than half of individuals with low-incomes who seek civil justice assistance are turned away due to a lack of resources. Their cases are child custody, domestic violence, eviction, disaster relief and veterans’ benefits.
We, as a society, must do better.
Please enjoy your Independence Day celebrations with family and friends. Please ask them to remember that patriotism is more than just flag waving. It is a dedication to our nation’s principles and a commitment to our fellow citizens. We are lawyers. These are our values. We took an oath. This is what we do.
Follow President Klein on Twitter or email [email protected]. This article appeared in the July 2017 issue of theABA Journalwith the headline "Price of Liberty: Lawyers demonstrate patriotism through helping others and expanding access to justice."