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Stephen J. Rapp: Democracy Fails Without Lawyers

Stephen J. Rapp


  • Popular government, impartial justice, and protection of the weak from the strong won’t continue without our best efforts each day in court, in our communities, and in our nation.
Stephen J. Rapp: Democracy Fails Without Lawyers
Jesse Stafford via iStock

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When I was in law school in the 1970s, I was excited about what I saw as historic legislative and judicial progress on civil rights and environmental regulation. And I dreamed of using what I learned in law school in a career of “lawmaking,” hoping to write new and better laws to protect the public from abuses both public and private.

So strong was my motivation in this direction that I sought and won an open seat in the state legislature during my second year in law school. Thereafter, I gave my legal studies less than my full attention.

I was a legislator for six years. I was proud of new laws enacted and pleased to see similar action in other states and at the federal level. However, the legal reforms didn’t always have the anticipated benefits or didn’t gain the broad public support necessary to survive when the political balance changed.

A Loss of Faith in Democracy

More worrying in recent years has been the loss of faith in democracy itself, in the promise of government of, by, and for the people.

Some of this can be attributed to leaders who promise more than they can deliver and whose policies leave behind large parts of the public while others prosper. Mostly it was caused by those who intentionally misstate the facts, divide the population between true believers and those who allegedly threaten the nation’s greatness, and undermine our system of justice to serve their selfish personal interests.

The Broader Importance of Lawyering

What I missed in law school and only came to understand later was the importance of everyday lawyering itself, of developing the skills—including empathic listening, careful preparation, and confident advocacy—to bring the law to bear for the benefit of your client.

I also didn’t yet understand the broader importance of “lawyering” in the sense of upholding the truth in every public forum, supporting the impartial administration of justice, defending even your opponents from unfair attack, and working to open communication and build trust between communities of differing interests and backgrounds.

James Madison called the provisions of our constitution “parchment barriers,” insufficient alone to protect our republic. Lawyers must work every day to ensure that legal protections are upheld in actual practice in our nation, state, and communities—to be persons of public virtue—a quality George Washington said was the “necessary spring of popular government.”

When the Law Crumbles

In my international career, I saw what happened in countries where the rule of law failed. In Rwanda in the early 1990s, political leaders corruptly exploited national resources with impunity. Public officials known for protecting all the people were sacked, while law-abiding prosecutors and judges were marginalized. The honest press was shuttered, while the media of hate was unleashed to denounce an ethnic minority as accomplices of the nation’s enemies.

Then, in just 100 days from April to July 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children were hacked to death by their neighbors.

The same blood flows in all our veins. The same passions could motivate us to tolerate tyrants and to become perpetrators or silent accomplices.

Defending Our Institutions

In the United States, we have institutions of which we’re justifiably proud. But they won’t survive on their own. If we’ve succeeded, it’s because Americans have fought to give real meaning and force to the words in the parchment of our constitution. Continuing that fight is the responsibility of all citizens, but particularly of lawyers.

There are always legitimate differences of opinion. Majorities that would decide those differences are transient. Minorities must be protected. Disputes need to be settled by agreed rules and with an absolute commitment to the truth.

The sooner we understand our own responsibility to protect our democratic institutions, the better. Popular government, impartial justice, and protection of the weak from the strong won’t continue without our best efforts each day in court, in our communities, and in our nation.