Two weeks ago, tragically, people who were incapable of or unwilling to live under the laws we honor laid siege to our Capitol building, terrorizing those within and threatening the peaceful transition of power. An officer trying to protect those within was beaten to death. I do not have to repeat the stories of what happened — we have all borne witness.
As attorneys, we spend our lives reading, challenging, analyzing, supporting, arguing, sometimes writing and sometimes condemning laws and their foundations, whether in the Constitution, case law or statutes. But we do not question the existence of, or need for the existence of, law. Rarely do we stand back and think about how much our work is focused on the rule of law and its impact on us. Rarely do we have to wonder about whether the rule of law should exist or apply to our daily lives. Rarely do we have to fear that our country or its leaders may lose its fidelity to the rule of law. And yet, here we are.
The American Bar Association defines the rule of law as follows:
The rule of law is a set of principles, or ideals, for ensuring an orderly and just society. Many countries throughout the world strive to uphold the rule of law where no one is above the law, everyone is treated equally under the law, everyone is held accountable to the same laws, there are clear and fair processes for enforcing laws, there is an independent judiciary, and human rights are guaranteed for all. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/rule-of-law/
Nonviolent problem-solving through legislation, representation, and litigation are foundational to our lives in the law. Each day, without thinking about it, our profession supports this approach to conflict resolution. As lawyers, we are barred from making false statements in pleadings or misleading tribunals. Because our profession recognizes that we hold a special role, and because our courts and profession recognize that truth is necessary for resolution of disagreements, we take an oath of office requiring us to uphold the Constitution and are required to abide by a code of ethics.
How often do we consider the importance of our work in ensuring nonviolent resolution of disputes? Two or more parties disagree, and instead of fighting in the streets, we communicate, perhaps before a tribunal, and accept a decision. If the decision is unfavorable, we may present our positions again to another tribunal. I truly have come to believe, especially in recent weeks, that our work as attorneys is patriotic. We help to sustain our democracy.
The rule of law requires buy-in. Members of a society must accept that there is an agreed upon set of rules and series of procedures that we follow when we disagree. We must agree that there is objective truth. And in large part, we have succeeded as a country in achieving that social contract. Even peaceful protests are part of the scheme that permits objection to laws and their application.
When our citizens no longer support principles and ideals that ensure an orderly and just society, we become a country in which violence may determine the outcome of a conflict.
Though our system has historically been imperfect, and has often failed to meet the goal of equal treatment for all and protection of rights for all, it is evolving. Perhaps we have all taken our democracy and the rule of law for granted. I know I did. Although I have been active in various political efforts, I never contemplated the possibility that our democracy might be in peril. But again, here we are.
I was speaking to Kevin Ryan, the executive director of the Monroe County Bar Association, suggesting that we consider focusing on the rule of law for Law Day. And last week, we learned that will be the American Bar Association’s theme for this year. I am guessing they, like we, wished to select the topic not because this is simply an interesting topic, but because we must return to our foundations. We must give thought and effort to rebuilding faith in the rule of law, and strengthen our resolve to shore up its bases.
An MCBA member also suggested we consider a speaker’s group that can help to educate our community about the importance of the rule of law. So as we begin to turn to solutions to strengthen the rule of law and our country’s reliance upon it, I would like to invite you to reach out to me if you wish to be part of this educational effort.
Jill Paperno is president of the Monroe County Bar Association. She is First Assistant Public Defender at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office.
 “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the New York Constitution, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney and counselor at law of the Supreme Court of the state of New York according to the best of my ability.”