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October 26, 2023 Vol. 46, No. 5

Five Things Bar Leaders Can Do to Strengthen Democracy in Their Community

By Nick Hansen

Respected retired U.S. Judge J. Michael Luttig sounded the alarm that “American democracy and the rule of law are in peril” during the plenary session of the 2023 National Conference of Bar Presidents Annual Meeting. Luttig said that lawyers are “uniquely responsible” to support the pillars of the nation: democracy, the constitution, and the rule of law.

In a subsequent panel discussion led by Carl Smallwood, a past president of the NCBP, past president of the Columbus Bar Association, and director of the Divided Community Project at the Moritz College of Law, bar leaders discussed how lawyers can lead in restoring trust in democracy. The panelists shared ideas, strategies, and concerns on how bars can address this pivotal topic.

Panelists included Mary Amos Augsburger, CEO of the Ohio State Bar Association; Rew R. Goodenow, past president of the NCBP and the State Bar of Nevada; and William Hubbard, past president of the ABA and board chair of the World Justice Project.

Here are five takeaways from the presentation that bar leaders can use:

  1. Make a policy guide for when your bar responds to an issue
    The Ohio State Bar has set up policies that govern their response to issues related to the rule of law. One policy lays out guidelines to examine whether the issue is fact-specific to a case, or if it’s a calling into question the judiciary.  The policy allows the president to speak out, with recommendations from the bar’s judicial affairs committee. “We have a process, and it’s one we consistently apply,” said Augsburger. “Sometimes they say that process is more important than the outcome. In this case both are important, but we make sure we are using that process and using it consistently.” The OSBA also has a process to respond to legislative and policy matters. Augsburger stated that while members of their voluntary bar may not always agree with the bar’s positions, they usually feel better knowing there was a process in reaching their conclusion.
  2. The bar can speak on matters of administration of justice or facilitate discussion
    While many unified bars are concerned about running afoul of the Keller decision, they can speak on matter of administration of justice. Goodenow said that there is a role for bars to play in the issue of supporting democracy through the lens administration of justice. He mentioned the issues of judicial term limits and the judicial nomination process as issues that fall under this category.
  3. The bar can always educate
    Conversely, the bar does not always have to take a position on an issue. The OSBA did not take a position on the recent Issue 1 special election, but instead organized programming and connected the media with members to discuss the issue. “The bar can always play a role in educating, even if it’s an issue you’re not going to be comfortable weighing in on,” said Augsburger.
  4. Get out in the public
    While the legal community can often be seen as insular, Dean Hubbard said that it is vital for lawyers to educate the public on the importance of the rule of law “It’s not just about lawyers and judges. It’s about architects, engineers, and faith leaders. We’re all dependent on the rule of law for a stable society.” That is a founding principle of the World Justice Project, which recently developed a presentation lawyers can use to talk with community groups. (Note: sign-up required to view presentation)
  5. Find out what is important to your community.
    The OSBA recently polled high school students in their state to find out what they want to know more about and how they want to learn about it. They produced three short, animated videos on the subjects of how to change the law, what to do if you get pulled over by the police, and how to properly record the police. With a paid social media campaign, the videos had over 360,000 views.

Watch the entire plenary session.

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