Our role as officers of the court is known to all of us. It coalesces our obligation to ethics and professionalism as much as to zealous advocacy. It is the font of our duty to serve our justice system be it through education, pro bono representation, or bar leadership. While some do not heed the call to service, many do in ways small and large. This unique role is what distinguishes us from so many other vocations. History gleams with the selfless acts of lawyers like Percy Langster, who was honored with the most recent Michigan Legal Milestone.
Lawyers are not the only ones called to service. Our churches, synagogues, and temples all implore their parishioners to reach beyond their own lives, their own self-interest, to contribute to our society, to our world. Our fraternal organizations, nonprofits, charities, community centers, and so many other institutions are in perpetual need of volunteers, talent, and money to further their missions, serving those who suffer in this world, serving ideals often neglected by our personal, economic, and work lives.
Those institutions exist under one umbrella: our democratic society. Without the freedom afforded to us by our Constitution and protected by our courts, none of this would exist. Other countries have riches. Not many have free speech, free press, vibrant dissent (on almost any topic), and protections for those without a voice. The structure and execution are hardly perfect; that’s precisely why so many are called to a purpose. But without the superstructure mooring our government and society, the roof that perhaps too many of us take for granted will collapse and all that thrives underneath it would be jeopardized.
The passion of our citizenry and their ability to loudly proclaim their views is often wielded without much care. The issue is not whether it is well-intentioned, honestly believed, or what I (or any other Bar official) personally think about it. The Bar hews closely to its mandate to not get involved in partisan politics or policy debates. But firmly in its wheelhouse are issues reasonably related to improving the functioning of the court and the availability of legal services to society.1 Emblazoned across every corner of our Bar are the words of Roberts P. Hudson, our first president: “No organization of lawyers can long survive which has not for its primary object the protection of the public.” Nothing is more essential to protecting the public — and protecting the republic — than protecting the rule of law.
At its core, the rule of law provides that each of us is equal before the law. But it is built upon and closely tied to something deeper — faith in the courts as an institution. As our Supreme Court wrote when it tied the issues together, “The government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. […] No [person] in this country is above the law.”2
Faith in our courts is not about whether you won or lost a case. It is about whether at the end of the day, we trust our courts to resolve disputes rather than engage in vigilante justice. It is about whether we have faith placing our life, liberty, and money in the hands of a judicial system. This trust must, of course, accept that people are fallible; that is why we have the right to a jury and appellate review. This trust must also recognize that sometimes there are bad laws and unjust decisions; even then, we must shore up and not destroy our institutions and work especially hard to bend the moral arc of our universe towards justice. Brown vs. Board of Education was decided by the same court that issued the Dred Scott decision. Injustice deserves — and indeed requires — rallies, marches, advocacy, and calls for change. What we cannot allow are attacks on the very fiber of our justice system.
Judges across the country are being threatened and attacked based upon their rulings. The U.S. Marshals Service reported an average of 847 threats or inappropriate miscommunications against federal judges per year in 2014-2015, a number that tripled by 2016-2017 and ballooned to approximately 4,400 threats per year between 2017-2021.3 Here in Michigan, threats have been made against both federal4 and state court judges.5 As we approach election season, we might expect another spike of attacks and even outright intimidation.
The comment to ABA Model Rule 8.2 directly advocates that “[t]o maintain the fair and independent administration of justice, lawyers are encouraged to continue traditional efforts to defend judges and courts unjustly criticized.” The American Bar Association has responded,6 as have many state bars. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has made a similar call to all lawyers, urging them to engage in civic outreach in order to increase the public’s understanding of our government and courts.7 State courts have launched task forces on countering disinformation, including attacks on judges.8 Many have written on the threat and ways lawyers can professionally defend the rule of law.9
The State Bar of Michigan is committed to doing its part. In 2022, it posted a primer on the rule of law (which I authored) on its website, aimed at the public, the media, and attorneys.10 We are looking at ways to increase our civics education offerings to students. We will use opportunities to remind Michiganders of the importance of the rule of law and corrosive, unnecessary damage caused by attacking judges personally.
Each of you has a role to play as well. As private citizens who happen to be officers of the court, speak up. Write a letter to your local newspaper. Speak to your local community group or school about the rule of law. Instead of rolling your eyes at jury service, remember that it is one of the ways most people participate directly in our judicial system and studies show that citizens’ perception of the overall fairness of our system increases once they serve.11
The aforementioned SBM online piece on the rule of law includes the observation that, “Democracy can be dismantled by words as well as actions.”12 Conversely, our words can shore up one of our most sacred institutions, affirm our citizenry’s faith in the courts, and contribute to making the system better. Indeed, that is a worthy goal.