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March 08, 2021

Testimony submitted by the Standing Committee on Public Education - Center for Professional Responsibility

Testimony submitted by the Standing Committee on Public Education




"ETHICS 2000"


Furthering Public Understanding and Confidence Is a Professional Responsibility

The ABA's February 1999 national survey on public perceptions underscores the need to build public confidence and trust in the justice system by improving public understanding. Survey findings indicated, in particular, an alarming lack of public confidence in the legal profession. At the same time, the survey also indicated that many Americans wish to learn more about the justice system and are interested in learning from lawyers, judges and bar associations. Significantly, this study "reveals that the more knowledge people have about the justice system the greater their confidence in the justice system overall." During the past year and a half, a series of major ABA conferences have highlighted the contributions of affirmative steps to foster public trust and confidence in the system. Most recently, the ABA Forum on Justice Improvements, held in St. Petersburg, Florida in October 1999, was devoted, in large part, to how public education can build public understanding and confidence in the justice system.

The ABA has long supported organized public education activities through the efforts of many sections, divisions, and committees, including the Division for Public Education. Across the country, many bar associations, courts and other legal institutions are also actively conducting innovative and comprehensive public education programs designed to foster public understanding of the law and the justice system, many in partnership with educators and civic groups. To broaden their outreach and enhance their effectiveness, however, these public education programs require greater support by lawyers throughout the country.

To foster lawyers’ responsibility and to highlight their participation in this area, the Standing Committee on Public Education is sponsoring Resolution 108 at the impending meeting of the ABA House of Delegates (February 14-15, 2000). It resolves:

"that the American Bar Association considers it part of every lawyer’s fundamental professional responsibility to further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the American system of justice."

To date, the Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Service, Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel, Special Committee on Medical Professional Liability, Section of Intellectual Property Law, Section on Labor and Employment Law, and the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges have agreed to cosponsor Resolution 108.

A Lawyer’s Responsibilities as a Public Citizen

The Preamble to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct sets forth the professional responsibilities of a lawyer. One of these is to be a "public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice." The Preamble describes certain conduct that fulfills this responsibility. We believe, however, that it omits a critical component required to define fully the lawyer’s fundamental role as a public citizen—notably, a lawyer’s responsibility for furthering public understanding of and confidence in the justice system.

In contrast, the Preamble to the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct clearly states that "Intrinsic to all sections of this Code [is the precept] that judges, individually and collectively, must… strive to enhance and maintain confidence in our legal system." We believe that lawyers should be held to no lesser a standard. Ultimately, is not one of the fundamental reasons underlying the promulgation of a code of conduct for the legal profession to sustain public trust and confidence in our justice system and the rule of law itself?

Accordingly, we recommend that the following be incorporated into the Model Rules:

As a public citizen, a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the American system of justice. In a constitutional democracy, the effectiveness and, indeed, the very survival of the justice system relies essentially on public understanding, trust, and confidence. This is so because our justice system is a public institution that depends on popular participation and support to maintain its authority. Lawyers, as guardians and caretakers, as well as stakeholders, in the justice system, have a special responsibility to foster public understanding of and confidence in the law and legal institutions.

For the Commission’s Consideration

The Standing Committee on Public Education takes no specific position on where our suggested language should be incorporated into the Model Rules. We welcome discussion with the Commission on this point. We wish to thank the Commission on Evaluation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for the opportunity to testify at this public hearing and for your consideration of our suggestions.

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