As you know if you follow this blog, I have been in Beijing marking the 15th anniversary of the Beasley School of Law’s Rule of Law program in China. I’ve posted some thoughts about that event here, and even though the commencement exercises have concluded I find myself still thinking about some of the ideas they have inspired. In particular, I find my thoughts returning to the rule of law as the organizing principle for our American system of values, and to the role of advocacy in making that system work.
I think that the best way to illuminate how advocacy makes our system work is to look at those times when the system has failed us. Take, for example, the era of Jim Crow in the American South. In last month’s Kolsby Lecture, Chilton Davis Varner shared some powerful reflections on how the law became a tool for dehumanization and political oppression during that time. Sanctioned inequality under the guise of “separate but equal” delegitimized the rule of law itself. One result, according to Varner, was a breach of trust in a justice system that had clearly failed not just the people it oppressed, but all of us.
What dismantled Jim Crow and began to restore trust in the rule of law was the passion and perseverance of a handful of lawyers and judges who became, in Varner’s words, “problem-solvers” who were “born to do the most unpleasant jobs for all of us.” We might also call them advocates. This small group of men and women understood that in order to restore trust in the rule of law, they had to successfully defend not just their clients’ interests, but their clients’ humanity, to a majority whose prosperity and comfort depended on denying it. But even that was not the end of their labors, for they also had to rehabilitate the system itself and regain the trust of those who had been injured by it. They used the tools of their profession – procedure, logic, persuasion and, ultimately, passion – to repair a broken system and to restore faith in its ability to serve us all.
One of the best parts of Varner’s remarks, for me at least, was that so many of our students had (and took) the opportunity to hear them. The need for advocates is no less pressing today than it was a half century ago. Not every lawyer can do civil rights work, to be sure: but every lawyer can work so that her actions have not just consequences, but meaning. The rule of law depends on lawyers who are, in Varner’s words, the “keepers of their own professionalism” – who see themselves as advocates in this fundamental sense.
I believe that the rule of law as an idea and as a system of values is one of the best, most powerful tools we have for creating and sustaining just, prosperous societies. I believe also that for it to remain so, those of us privileged to serve in this profession must be prepared to be advocates not just for our clients, but for the rule of law itself. Whether in Beijing, Philadelphia, or points in between, advocacy in service to this ideal is one of our best hopes for creating a more perfect world.