• WINTER 2008
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Interview with ABA President Bill Neukom on the Rule of Law

ABA President Bill Neukom

William H. Neukom, a partner in the Seattle office of K&L Gates, is president of the American Bar Association ( full biography) His one-year term began in August 2007 at the adjournment of the association's Annual Meeting in San Francisco . Law Matters editor Craig Johnson recently caught up with President Neukom regarding his year-long focus on the rule of law.

Law Matters: During the last ABA Annual Meeting, you announced the 2008 Law Day theme, "The Rule of Law: Foundation for Communities of Opportunity and Equity." How do you define the rule of law? What are the most significant tenets of this concept that you want young Americans to know?

Neukom: The rule of law is the foundation for every community that provides opportunity and equity—where people are safe and healthy, can earn a decent living, are treated fairly, and have access to quality education. When I talk about the rule of law, I'm referring to four key ideas:

  • No one is above the law. The government and its agents must obey the law, just like anyone else.
  • Laws must be clear, publicized, and stable, and they must protect fundamental rights, including those of personal safety and property.
  • Laws must be enacted and enforced in a manner that is accessible, fair, and efficient.
  • Finally, there must be diverse, competent, independent, and ethical lawyers, judges, and enforcement officers to uphold the law and ensure access to justice.

When the rule of law is present, communities have the opportunity to thrive. But when it is absent, communities are vulnerable to violence, poverty, corruption, sickness, and ignorance—indeed, they probably are doomed to remain that way.

Law Matters: How are communities of opportunity and equity shaped by the rule of law?

Neukom: The rule of law supports virtually every aspect of our lives. Even our daily drives to school and work would be impossible if most motorists didn’t voluntarily obey traffic laws. To take a few broader examples, international health efforts are compromised when black marketers sell counterfeit drugs to people in desperate need. And business, which is so critical to economic prosperity, depends on impartial courts to enforce contracts and intellectual property rights.

The rule of law is a little like a central nervous system, or the operating system of a computer. It’s what makes everything else work. All other attempts to improve the human condition, whether fighting disease or poverty, depend on building the rule of law as a necessary foundation.

Law Matters: How can schools, youth courts, and other youth-focused institutions make the rule of law practical and relevant in the lives of young Americans on Law Day?

Neukom: The American Bar Association’s Public Education Division has created outstanding classroom dialogues that are designed to make important legal issues accessible and relevant to young people. In recent years, the topics covered in these dialogues include the American jury, separation of powers, and youth and justice. A similar dialogue is being prepared this year on the rule of law. All of these dialogues can be accessed at Educators and lawyers also can take advantage of a Law Day planning guide, which can be found at

Law Matters: Civic education is vital to the legitimacy of the rule of law. According to policy recently approved by the House of Delegates, the ABA "urges the amendment of the No Child Left Behind Act if reauthorized, or the adoption of other legislation, to ensure that all students experience high quality civic learning . . . [that] is regularly and appropriately assessed . . . and accorded national educational priority on a par with reading and mathematics." What is the impact on the rule of law as the foundation for communities of opportunity and equity in the United States if civic education is not a national educational priority?

Neukom: An informed citizenry is vital to the rule of law, and therefore, strong civic education is essential. That is especially true for young people, who will be the next generation of citizens and leaders. The ABA House of Delegates recognized this in August 2007, when it urged that civic education be given the same national priority as reading and mathematics, and that this priority be reflected in any relevant federal legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Law Matters: What do you recommend that the national law-related education community do to elevate the need for civic education in our nation’s schools?

Neukom: The unfortunate reality is that classroom time for civics has declined in recent years because there is inevitable pressure on teachers to increase time on topics addressed in standardized tests. Educators and lawyers concerned about civic learning should lobby at all levels of government—local, state and federal—to ensure that civic education is given a greater priority. But they should not advocate alone; their efforts will be more successful if they join forces with leaders from other disciplines. All members of our communities are stakeholders in civic education and the rule of law. By harnessing a broad cross section of the community, we can make a bigger difference.

Law Matters: What can our Law Matters readers do to sustain this foundation of opportunity and equity in their local communities?

Neukom: Teachers and lawyers can play a unique and important role in educating the next generation of citizens by offering relevant lessons on civics. Law Day is so powerful because it encourages lawyers to spend time in local schools in supporting teachers in their year-round work. And the ABA's Law Day planning site provides excellent tools to make these topics interesting, including mock trials, dramatizations, and lessons on dispute resolution.

Teachers and lawyers also should get involved in multidisciplinary outreach meetings that the World Justice Project is supporting in states across the country. As I said before, our efforts to advance the rule of law for everyone’s effort will be more successful if we get everyone involved. Teachers and lawyers can help organize such meetings in their states, or they can attend an upcoming meeting. For more information about multidisciplinary rule of law meetings in the United States, your readers can contact Bill Allen at Bill is this year’s Law Day Chair, and he also is the member of the World Justice Project Commission who is coordinating the state meetings.

Law Matters: You have chosen the rule of law as the focal point of your year in office, which led to the creation of the ABA World Justice Project. How is the work of the World Justice Project distinguished from that of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative?

Neukom: Beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ABA has provided technical legal assistance in countries that have lacked fundamental elements of the rule of law. Today, the Rule of Law Initiative, or ROLI, is working with local partners in more than 40 nations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The initiative is working on such diverse areas as anti-corruption, criminal law reform and human trafficking, gender issues, human rights and conflict mitigation, judicial reform, legal education reform, and legal profession reform. It’s an achievement that the ABA is rightly proud of.

The World Justice Project will complement and build upon ROLI’s ground-breaking work by reaching out to all major disciplines to expand the constituency for advancing the rule of law. A central belief of the project is that everyone has a stake in the rule of law, and that we can much more effectively achieve justice if all disciplines—including doctors, educators, engineers, and clergy, as well as lawyers and judges—work together.

The project has held outreach meetings with other disciplines in five states—Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington State. In every meeting, leaders of other professions unanimously concluded that the rule of law directly affects their work.

Similar meetings also have been in Washington, D.C., Prague, Singapore, Buenos Aires, and Ghana. In July, the World Justice Forum will be held in Vienna, Austria. In addition to bringing disciplines together, the forum will discuss scholarly papers being prepared on the rule of law and examine a Rule of Law Index that will be used to evaluate different nations.

Law Matters: What do you see as the biggest threat to the rule of law in the United States and around the world?

ABA President Bill Neukom and other participants at march in Washington, D.C.Neukom: In recent months, we saw in Pakistan how fragile the rule of
law can be. In one stroke, General Pervez Musharraf suspended his nation’s constitution and arrested thousands of lawyers and judges, including a majority of the Supreme Court justices. It has been inspiring to see his nation’s citizens, and especially Pakistan’s lawyers and judges, stand up for the rule of law, and their effort has won broad support among America’s legal community.

Leaders of any nation will always be tempted to put themselves above the law. Our own Founders understood this, and intentionally tried to limit the consolidation of power by creating three separate branches of government that could check and balance one another. But it requires great courage and commitment to the rule of law for any people such as the Pakistanis to stand up when their liberties and rights are threatened.

That’s one reason it’s so important that we build a much broader support for the rule of law. An informed and engaged citizenry is the surest way to protect the rule of law. (For more information regarding President Neukom's recent efforts to urge restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan, visit

Law Matters: How will the Rule of Law Index impartially and objectively measure adherence to the rule of law without imposing American values on other countries and cultures?

Neukom: The vast majority of the Index’s criteria are tied to international or regional documents, such as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and not at all to American documents, such as the U.S. Constitution. The Index was developed with input from around the globe. We plan to test the Index this spring through local partners, who will collect data in several countries. The project will refine the Index as needed, based on our comments and feedback from our initial evaluations.

Law Matters: How will you celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Law Day this year?

Neukom: I’ve encouraged states around the country to hold multidisciplinary meetings on the rule of law by Law Day. So far, five states have held meetings, and ten others have set dates, and plans have begun in many other states. In addition, the ABA is working on a rule of law meeting in Washington on May 1 that will bring together high-level representatives of the three branches of government.

Finally, I want to say that Law Matters readers can also learn more about the World Justice Project at Expanding the rule of law is a generational challenge that we can delay no longer. With humility and curiosity, it is time to reach out to other fields of endeavor. Step by step, partnership by partnership, country by country, we will cement the rule of law as the basis for establishing communities of opportunity and equity so that justice truly becomes a norm that people in all nations will expect, insist upon, and defend.


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Law Matters, which reports on developments, ideas, programs, and resources in the field of public education about the law, is disseminated three times yearly (fall, winter, spring) by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Public Education.

Chair, Dwight L. Smith
Director, Division for Public Education, Mabel C. McKinney-Browning
Editor, Law Matters, Craig W. Johnson

The views expressed in this e-newsletter are those of the editors and have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association or the Standing Committee on Public Education.

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