By the time you read this column, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will have heard the most recent petition to change the nature of membership in the State Bar of Wisconsin. I am confident that no matter how the court rules, the State Bar will continue to be relentless in its mission to serve the cause of justice, improve the administration of justice, and support the profession and public service.
In preparing for the oral argument, I read the preamble to the Code of Professional Responsibility. A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen with special responsibility for the quality of justice. A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers, and public officials.
It seems that many people have forgotten this basic premise.
We are a profession. The State Bar is not a trade association designed to promote private interests. As lawyers, we serve a larger cause.
The State Bar provides lawyers with many opportunities to fulfill the promises we made when we took our oath. We are not conscripted to join the State Bar; we take the oath voluntarily and for the common good. Certainly we can make a good living, but fundamentally, our service to clients is within the parameters of the common law and the statutes.
When I was a young lawyer, public criticism of our courts was muted and semi-respectful. Even the criticism of politicians (I am thinking of Richard Nixon) had a different tone, albeit the transgressions were serious.
State Bar members have
legitimate differences of opinion
as to who is best qualified to
serve on the court, but we must
not diminish the institution when
we express our disagreements.
But now, in Wisconsin, we are heading into another “mean season,” by which I mean we face a supreme court election. I am concerned that attacks on the institutional legitimacy of Wisconsin courts and judges, which already have begun, are unfair. Unfortunately, many assertions are purely political attacks on judicial decisions and the justices who made them and are not based on the court’s underlying reasoning or application of the rule of law. They are designed to create an impression that the court is not fair. The media disseminates these assertions, often without checking the underlying facts and further creating doubt as to the legitimacy of the institution.
State Bar members have legitimate differences of opinion as to who is best qualified to serve on the court, but we must not diminish the institution when we express our disagreements. Weakening the institution weakens our profession. Respect for the law and the court that enforces it in an open society depends on understanding voluntary compliance and on reinforcement by peer and public opinion. So say our Rules of Professional Conduct.
Many years ago, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ryan stated emphatically that an independent bar is a condition of a true civilization. An integrated State Bar that supports our judicial system is crucial to society at large.