Annale Renneker (AR): How would you define the code of civility as a lawyer?
Jason Rittereiser (JR): Well I think we’re all bound by rules of professional conduct, and I’ve seen the code of civility in two contexts: (1) the context of criminal law as a criminal prosecutor of King County and (2) also in civil practice as a labor and employment lawyer. I think we’re fortunate in Washington state, and I hope it’s consistent across the country, that, while we operate in an environment in which we often never agree on the facts, and strongly dispute how the law applies to those facts, we are nonetheless bound by an ethical obligation to engage in disputes civilly and to work with the other side. And we are bound by an ethical obligation to adhere to the truth. I think that all of that combined to create what I call “a code of civility.”
AR: Do you think that as a lawyer your definition of the code of civility is different from that of a political candidate?
JR: Well, it certainly doesn’t differ for me. I think that within the context of the law, we’re all playing by the same rules. And, because of that, the code of civility is more easily applicable. In the context of politics, we’ve seen over the course of the past 10 years a retreat of civility, particularly in the context of political campaigns. As a result, I think that people are skeptical of everything. Anyone who is running for office says it’s because there has been a failure to adhere to the truth. People tend to say things, do things, and present information for politically expedient reasons rather than being truthful and transparent. I think there is a great desire for authenticity and civility to be reinjected into our politics; that is something I’m trying to do.
AR: You said that you think there’s been a lack of civility of in politics, which is making people skeptical. Has that created a challenge for you?
JR: I think it has created a challenge for anybody running for office. For example, at the national level, when President Obama was first running for office and Donald Trump was pushing this birther movement (i.e., that somehow the President of the United States was not born in America)—I think that was a turning point in American politics. The country’s trust in the political process has been eroded by the constant barrage of misleading information and presentation of falsehoods as open questions or facts. So, I’m running for Congress in Washington’s Eighth Congressional District, which I believe is the most unique congressional district in Washington state. It’s really a microcosm of the country; we have everything from high tech and big business to rural small-town working class, farming and ranching communities, and even manufacturers in our district. With that comes a diversity of political thought and diversity of experience, and I think in general there’s a distaste of politics because of the lack of civility and the lack of adherence to truth. So yeah, it’s a challenge regularly.
AR: How does the code of civility impact your oral advocacy?
JR: A litigation background is helpful. As trial attorneys we spend a lot of time engaging in public speaking and presenting information in a way that people can relate to it and understand it. At the end of the day, we’re storytellers. I think that’s an important skill set in running for public office and certainly for members of US Congress. The code of civility is intrinsic and intertwined with everything that we do and say, not only as attorneys but also on the political campaign trail. There are opportunities to speak at various times and places with different groups of people who have diverse interests. We occasionally see political candidates who say one thing to one group and another to another group. The code of civility has kept me focused on my ethical obligation not to mislead people and to be consistent in the positions I take when I’m on the campaign trail. My positions are well thought out, well defined, and consistent. I think that’s a very important attribute in politics.
AR: How important do you think it is for young lawyers to keep that code of civility in the forefront of their mind in their actions with others?
JR: I don’t think there is anything more important in the practice of law, especially for young lawyers, than to approach their practice with civility, with a mind toward being ethically bound at every turn, and in pursuit of the truth. As you develop as a lawyer, cases come and go, but your reputation does not. The only way to develop a reputation that is positive in a legal profession is with your unwavering practice of civility.