Lawyers Leading the Justice Debate

Justice DebateThis is our last post in our summer series on leadership. We looked to the past to see what it means to be a workplace leader in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers. Then we looked to the future to see how bar associations are training lawyers to lead their professions, both in Illinois and around the country.

But there’s one more step, beyond the workplace and beyond the profession. How can lawyers lead our public at large?  Make no mistake, lawyers are tasked to do exactly that.  As the Preamble to our Rules of Professional Conduct set out, a lawyer is a “public citizen [with] special responsibility for the quality of justice”.  What does that mean? It means lawyers should “reform [ ] the law”, “strengthen legal education” and “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system”.

It’s a tall order but one that lawyers are uniquely qualified to fulfill. And we do so in any number of ways, including through the power of art.

Investigating a Murderer

On June 30, 2016, Adnan Syed received a new trial after serving 16 years in prison for a murder he claims he did not commit. New trials aren’t generally national news. This one, however, was the top story around the country. Why? Because Adnan Syed is the star of the incredibly popular first season of the podcast, Serial.

Reporter Sarah Koenig did a yeoman’s job in investigating and ultimately revealing the strong possibility that, regardless of guilt or innocence, Syed had not received a fair trial. Thanks to her work, Serial went on to shine a light on a possible injustice, and also win some very well-deserved awards. You may be familiar with some of the awards it won, including a Peabody. You may be less familiar with others, including one that all lawyers should know about, the ABA Silver Gavel Award.

The ABA Silver Gavel Awards

Every year, the ABA Silver Gavel Awards honor publications and programs that educate the public about the Constitution, the justice system, and how lawyers work in and with both. Last year, Serial won a Silver Gavel. So too did a book on ending juvenile prison, a documentary on Proposition 8, and a newspaper series on domestic violence in South Carolina. That the award winners were such a diverse sample of our complex legal system serves to show how central the law is to our society, in its dual role as both an instigator and reflector of social change.

A year ago, much to my delight, I received an invitation to join the Silver Gavels Standing Committee. I happily accepted, looking forward to what has been called (by me) the Academy Awards of the legal profession.

Judging the Silver Gavel Entries

In March, I received my assignment. I had to watch two documentaries – Making A Murderer and The Hunting Ground – and my group had to read three books – Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial; Involuntary Heroes: Hurricane Katrina’s Impact on Civil Liberties, and Untrodden Ground: How Presidents Interpret the Constitution, and one newspaper publication, a New Yorker series on the death penalty. Later, with the larger group, I also reviewed a Law & Order episode about a wealthy transgender teenager’s death; two public radio series, one on America’s bail system, the second on the U.S. Supreme Court, and two short documentaries, the first on the battered women’s defense, and the second on the maze of issues surrounding the foster care system.

In May, I met with my fellow Standing Committee members and debated the merits of all of these submissions. The members were from all around the country and worked in different aspects of the profession. We had judges, law professors, large firm lawyers, solo practitioners, and government attorneys. Each of us had different perspectives to bring to the debate.  Was this book academic enough? Did this program demonstrate a side of the criminal system unknown to most of the public? Is this author playing on sympathies or exposing legitimate grievances? Should we judge a generously funded program the same as one on a shoestring budget? Do we look for broad appeal or niche knowledge?

A Special Responsibility for the Quality of Justice

Despite our differences, throughout our vigorous debates, all of us lawyers recognized the privilege we had as attorneys with our specialized knowledge of the law. We understand what “reasonable doubt” means. We recognize the difference between federal and state jurisdiction. We can explain rational basis versus strict scrutiny. And we know why a defendant wouldn’t go on the stand to testify in his own defense. Regardless of what job we took later in life, we all share the same basic knowledge learned in law school. That knowledge is what differentiates our understanding of the law from the general public’s. And that’s precisely why programs like the Silver Gavel Awards are so crucial – to showcase the works of art that have successfully bridged the gap between the public’s understanding of the justice system and our own.

Now another Silver Gavel documentary subject hopes for a new trial. I’m talking of course about Steve Avery and the Netflix series in which he starred, Making a Murderer.

Lawyers Leading the Discussion

For months, I listened to people talking about Making a Murderer in and out of the workplace. I saw people on my train watching it on their phones and tablets. I saw article after article about it appear in my newsfeed. I even saw the petition that went to the President on pardoning Steve Avery (the President, a lawyer, gave a brief response concerning jurisdiction).

The public wasn’t just interested in guilt or innocence. They also wanted to know about forced confessions, assigned counsel, fingerprints and DNA, civil suits, and the appeals process. The public debated all of those, and in so doing, put our entire criminal justice system on trial.

And in response, lawyers led the discussion. I listened to lawyers do interviews and speeches and podcasts with the public on what exactly Steve Avery’s conviction meant. We debated these issues and we answered the public’s questions. We delivered on our obligation to carry out our “special responsibility” as ambassadors of that justice system to the world at large.

What will win a Silver Gavel Award next year? Whatever the winners are, I guarantee they will spur debates throughout our country. I urge lawyers everywhere to take the lead in these debates, to demonstrate our own special knowledge of the rule of law, and to ensure that our living system of justice remains relevant to all.




An earlier version of this piece appeared in the July 13 edition of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

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