June 2021 Bar Bulletin
E Pluribus Unum — From the Many One. It’s the original motto of our country, but I admit to having sometimes confused it with “We the People,” the opening words of the U.S. Constitution.
Perhaps I should have paid more attention in high school Latin. Or made fewer jokes about the old Jesuits who taught us speaking this dead language with their ancient Roman friends.
Still, in 1776 the founders of our country sought a motto meant to calm the disputes that weighed heavily in the hot and sweaty air of summertime Philadelphia. They needed a motto encompassing a union of states with slaves, as well as states dominated by abolitionists. A country united in throwing off British rule and seizing the commercial advantages of interstate commerce. We can disagree, but we can be one country. E Pluribus Unum.
Current events have only confused the old motto further, challenging some of us to rethink how we as lawyers have a duty to strengthen our legal institutions and respect for the rule of law. This isn’t easy in a time when American democracy seems more imperiled than all but a few of us can remember.
While not quite the same as staring down Hitler and Nazism, we face the cumulative challenge of foreign interference with elections, misinformation and lies accepted as truth, new racist limits on voting rights, insurrectionist violence and exertions by a sitting president to subvert the peaceful transition of power.
While we have rid ourselves of our habitual liar of a president (for now he is exiled in Mar-a-Lago), we face a future marked by political sectarianism in which the two principal political parties view each other as the enemy and have lost trust in one another as Americans.
The evils of autocratic manipulation of information and lying were recently cited by the Irish Times columnist and writer Fintan O’Toole, warning of a prospective Irish government leader who likes to make up his own facts (apparently, this is not a uniquely American problem):
“It is about the need to recognise that discourse in a democracy has to be based on rationality and respect for evidence. . . . Strip away respect for evidence, and the concepts of truth and falsity evaporate. This is the autocratic style: if evidence does not matter, nothing the leader says is open to contradiction. Authority is not earned — it is asserted.”
In this time of sectarian political strife, our legal institutions including our courts and the rule of law itself must be strengthened by each of us. Not because we have a self-interest as lawyers, but because the pillars of society require an independent judiciary, functioning and well-funded courts, access to justice for those on the margins of society and newly admitted lawyers dedicated to these propositions.
Yet even in these precarious times, I must on reflection conclude that I’ve been a lucky lawyer. I don’t mean lucky because I’ve won a few (and lost a few) cases during my career.
I mean I am lucky to have been given the privilege of representing clients in a system that aspires to level the playing field for rich and poor, Black and white, powerful and those with little power or voice. And certainly, I’ve been lucky to learn from pro bono clients, to work in and support legal aid, and to do what I could (though not nearly enough) to bring diversity to the legal profession. We know now what our African American colleagues have known all along — that nothing is more important and sacred for all lawyers than the call to promote the race equity we so badly need but which has been so elusive to us these past 245 years.
In many ways, the challenges we face, including sectarianism and diminution of the rule of law uniquely challenge lawyers to serve as courageous leaders. Lawyer leaders willing to speak up when lies are told, to challenge fabricated “evidence” publicly and to oppose autocracy in all its forms; especially when it threatens to undermine the courts and legal institutions.
We can do more than speak out. KCBA offers so many ways to volunteer our time in the service of others and strengthen the rule of law in difficult times. Volunteer with our Neighborhood Legal Clinics, help out with our Records Project or represent clients directly through our Volunteer Legal Services Program (all at www.kcba.org). Every case you take, every dollar you give to these programs through our foundation (KCBF) or in service to our committees, sections or the New Lawyers Division strengthens those pillars of our society protecting all of us, especially the most vulnerable.
Let us not be silent in the face of sectarianism. Let us not sit comfortably while those yearning for freedom strive to reach our shores. Let us work together to right the profound wrongs of racism committed by legal, financial, health and other institutions of our society.
Thank you for all that you do as lawyers and people of good will to lead courageously toward a better America and a better world.
John McKay is the President of the King County Bar Association and a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. He can be reached at email@example.com.