I imagine that you, as am I, are meditating almost involuntarily on the following question:
“How did we get here?”
. . . to the Senate’s possible no-action in its constitutional role to “advise and consent” after a president nominates a new Supreme Court justice.
. . . to a presidential election cycle where the sparring seems abstract and “values” oriented, with not much of a nod at good governance or even the principles of a balanced, three-branch, democratic government.
. . . to the U.S. courts facing assumptions from the citizenry that judges vote their politics, whereas in truth judges and Justices apply the rule of law and guard the fact finding with rules of due process?
As I listen to the news, I reflexively return to two words. Education and Internet.
Education is good. We need more of it on the subject of how our democracy works. How else can citizens equip themselves to resist explosive campaigning about vague values du jour and exaggerated promises of surprising actions? A decade ago, Justices Breyer, Souter, and O’Connor mutually raised the alarm on the need for citizen education. They fanned out to urge lawyers to be ambassadors for the U.S. Constitution. The ABA joined them, too, with its citizen education initiatives in public schools. Lawyer groups did as well. But that education requires sustained energy, evaluation, and focus. Our national focus diverted to the recession, budgets tightened, and we swung our energy in different directions.
The Internet is a tool. But it tempts us to shop for opinions of others in places where the readers are already in agreement without a contrary voice. It teaches young learners to seek information in sound bites and summaries that do not require deep thinking. It creates seeming consensus without personal interaction by those who think they agree, and worse yet, without consideration of those who might disagree. So we create a national habit of yelling at those who do not consent to agree with our unexamined “values.” We argue to win, not to learn or to listen or to move forward.
My letter today is a call to the legal community to reach out and teach our communities about our democracy. To show that its three branches are given allocated responsibilities, each having checks and balances on the other two. If we allow each branch to work rather than halting its process, accusing it of imagined wrongs, or resorting to angry rhetoric, the government can be trusted to govern effectively.
How did we get here? I don’t really care.
How do we draw back from it? The lawyers across the state bars can make a difference. We have a few months left. Let’s do it.
Karen M. Lockwood, Esq.
President and Executive Director
National Institute for Trial Advocacy