The Lawyer's Responsibility

Monday, March 06, 2006

  • Zachary Carter
  • Zachary Carter

On February 28, 2006, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest honored Zachary Carter of Dorsey & Whitney with its annual Law & Society Award. The award honors the attorney who best combines outstanding legal skills with a long-standing commitment to public service and the New York community. Past winners include Kenneth R. Feinberg, Special Master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Prior to joining Dorsey, Carter served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Carter, a white collar crime expert, acknowledged the award by focusing on the legal community's unique responsibility.


We are experiencing an unprecedented erosion - not of our liberties or of our values - but of the value we place on our liberties.

I am no longer surprised when someone proclaims over our national airwaves that some one or another of our liberties must be sacrificed on the altar of national security -

What I find deeply disturbing is the increasingly indifferent reaction of the American people.

Was it 9/11 that traumatized the American psyche and precipitated this change in attitude/? That's the easy answer, but I don't believe it.

Long before 9/11, with the help of any number of political demagogues and angry talk radio windbags Americans were already beginning to value expediency over due process; and might over right; we had already grown comfortable with shouting down minority viewpoints; we had already begun to view our courts, not as protectors of our freedoms, but inconvenient obstacles to obtaining our short-ranged and often short-sighted objectives.

I do not believe that 9/11 was the cause of this erosion of faith in our values and institutions, but it certainly accelerated the process. 9/11 elicited in us what political demagogues have always effectively exploited - our fears and our anger. And that fear and anger have numbed the senses of many Americans.

I keep waiting for a headline sufficiently jarring to illicit the righteous indignation of the founding fathers -

Headline: the justice department announced today that it's just too darn hard to convict defendants under the constitution and laws of the united states - consequently, we are going to designate a whole class of folks who can be held without charges indefinitely - hope you don't mind.

Headline: if you make a transatlantic call to your loved ones back home (and god help you if your homeland is in the middle east) we're going to be listening in - no warrant, no judge, can't bother - hope you don't mind

What happened to the righteous indignation of the founding fathers?

I know 9/11 was a traumatic experience. But I have a feeling that facing a few thousand well-armed British redcoats was not exactly a walk in the park.

I think the real reason that Americans have not reacted in ways we would expect is that we have permitted our values and our system to be redefined by persons and forces that have no interest in preserving either -

Our traditional American values can get in the way of making a buck

Due process gets in the way of punishing our enemies

And in ways some people aren't happy about, our system of justice neutralizes unfair advantages of wealth, political power and monopoly so that the grievances of the poor and the underserved can be heard and redressed.

If the soul of our nation is to be saved, the American people must be reminded of the importance of the values and processes that set us apart.

Who can do that?. I would suggest that it is the legal profession that must lead a national civics lesson that reminds the American people of the importance of the values we have always held dear.

We who are trained in the law and who understand the role of our constitution must overcome the insistent demands for expediency over process

It is our profession that must help Americans understand that democracy is hard, but worth the effort

We are the ones who must explain why taking someone's liberty should be hard

Why condemning someone's home in favor of private commercial development should be hard

Why closing down a vitally needed hospital in an underserved community should be hard

Why making the environmental case for drilling for oil in a pristine wilderness should be hard

We as a profession must seize every opportunity to challenge every threat to our liberties, values and processes, not just in court, but in op ed pieces and , panels; in our conversations with are friends and neighbors. And if you are going to be a talking head on some news broadcast, please make it count. There are plenty of folks paid to entertain - let's accept our responsibility to inform.

Our profession has the opportunity to play an heroic role at a pivotal point in our nation's history.

At a time when many, many young men and women are dying for their country, we as a profession must accept the responsibility for reminding Americans of values that make this country worth dying for.