On the wall of the 1837 Chenango County Courthouse is an inscription in large letters: “FIAT JUSTITIA RUAT CAELUM.” It means: “Let justice be done though the heavens may fall.”
The idea of justice is eternal. We see it in the biblical passage in Deuteronomy commanding: “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.”
Throughout the history of our state and nation lawyers have fought for justice. We have led. Leadership is the glory of our profession, and our duty and responsibility.
Why lawyers? Why must we lead public opinion – not follow it? Because lawyers fashioned the framework of our government and built the institutions that are the bulwark of a free people.
As lawmakers in the Legislature, lawyers write the laws. As advocates and judges in courtrooms, lawyers administer justice according to law.
Today, more than ever, the voices of lawyers are needed.
There is an ancient curse, “May you live in interesting times.” This expression is intended to be ironic. It reflects anxiety and fear about current events.
We live in “interesting times.”
To be sure, extraordinary things are happening all around us. Health, prosperity, peace, and happiness are rising throughout the world. Starvation and extreme poverty are declining. Plagues that wiped out civilizations have been eradicated.
But something is amiss. There are disturbing trends in our society, culture, and politics, about which we should all be concerned.
Whatever your beliefs, we should all be concerned about the polarization and tribalization that is dividing our nation.
We should all be concerned about the anger and incivility that has turned public discourse into a blood sport.
We should all be concerned when public officials mock the principles our nation’s founders held to be self-evident or use racially charged rhetoric that tears apart the fabric of society.
Some say we live in a “post-truth” world, where facts and experts are no longer trusted. I don’t believe it, but some people do.
But this much is beyond dispute: The public increasingly doubts the ability of institutions built by lawyers to meet the challenges facing our society.
Worse, untold millions of Americans know nothing about the constitutional history of our government. Many do not know or care about constitutional traditions and norms.
All of this imposes a special duty on the legal profession. It also provides an opportunity to perform an important public service.
The public needs our wisdom. They need our expertise. They need our ability to see both sides of an issue, find common ground, and bring people together.
Lawyers know how to debate without dividing. We know how to disagree without being disagreeable. We need to model that behavior.
We must demonstrate, by our example, how differences of opinion can be discussed and debated, without name calling and words that wound.
We must teach our fellow citizens why we need an independent judiciary and the apolitical administration of justice.
We must explain why pluralism and tolerance are our national heritage, and the source of our strength.
New York is a beautiful mosaic of people. We are women and men, straight and gay, of every race, color, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. We have varying beliefs and live and work in communities, large and small, urban, suburban and rural.
The tie that binds us is a common set of values and beliefs, foremost of which is summed up by our national motto: E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.
The task falls to those learned in the law to teach the meaning of equal justice under law. Our communities need us to explain why we need laws to prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
Most of all, the public needs us to remind it why the rule of law has kept us free for over two centuries.
When the cynics say our institutions are failing, lawyers should answer: “Look at the American legal system.” It’s working.
Day in and day out, in good times and bad, lawyers and judges are defending our rights and protecting the rule of law.
We belong to the most influential, consequential, impactful profession in American life. Lawyers right wrongs, improve lives, make society better.
We are society’s problem solvers. We are the foot soldiers of the Constitution. The rights and freedom the citizenry enjoys mean nothing without lawyers to champion them.
This is a great time to be a lawyer. And we, the more than 300,000 lawyers admitted to practice in New York, are bound together by the singular purpose of attaining justice.
Lawyers should seize this moment. I know we will.