A qualified defense of lawyers, the legal system and the rule of law
Ryan Summerlin May 12, 2014
I love Westerns. In my opinion, the best Westerns tell the story of an oppressive force that is terrorizing a defenseless people (“The Magnificent Seven”); authorities who are not up to the task of restoring order (“3:10 to Yuma”) because they are corrupt (“Unforgiven”) or they don’t exist (“Open Range” — or my personal favorite, “The Three Amigos”); and the good guys who ride in, six guns a blazing, to restore peace and justice to the prairie (all of the above, ideally to music composed by Elmer Bernstein or Ennio Morricone).
The hero of the American Western is a self-reliant, rugged individualist. He (or she (“True Grit”)) questions authority and, at times, rebels against it. This hero embodies certain distinctively American values that are responsible, in part, for our success as a nation.
It is from this perspective, perhaps, that Ross Talbott, a writer for this publication, wrote a column titled “Lawyers and government are clamping down on our freedom.” He went on to discuss many oft-cited anecdotes that arguably show how lawyers, the legal system and the law are crowding out personal liberty and economic opportunity.
Now, I may be particularly sensitive on this issue, but when a man says that lawyers are clamping down on our freedom, those, to me, are fighting words. Upon reading these fighting words, I reached for my own six guns, but what I found instead was not a Spencer Rifle or a Smith & Wesson, it was a book: “A Man for All Seasons” by Robert Bolt, a play about the patron saint of lawyers, Thomas More.
In it, More says to a protégé of his: “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? … This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you were to cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”
In light of these words, it occurs to me that Mr. Talbott is right. Lawyers and government do intrude on our liberties, but some might say it’s the role of the law to do so, ideally in a manner targeted to promote the general welfare. But laws are imperfect, and those who craft and deal with laws are imperfect as well.
It also occurs to me that criticizing government, lawyers and politicians is an American pastime, observed by individuals of all political stripes. It’s a means to keep powerful people and institutions in check. But we benefit greatly from civilization, which depends entirely on the consent of the people to be governed. Although the rugged individualists of the wild west did well for themselves, a return to that lawless and chaotic day and age would not benefit anyone. So I believe that the heroic thing to do in this day and age is to follow the law, even in instances where the law is disagreeable.
I find that I have no quarrel with Mr. Talbott. But I would encourage him, his readers and the members of our community (including myself and other lawyers, politicians and judges) to follow the law scrupulously. Civil disobedience may be necessary in some rare instances, but it should be an option of last resort. If you genuinely believe that a law is not for the good of the people, cowboy-up, and fight tooth and nail, using every lawful and moral means available to change it. Honor the rights of others to do the same. Respect the outcome.
Matthew Laurel Trinidad is a former president of the 9th Judicial District Bar Association. He currently sits on the board of governors, the governing body of the Colorado Bar Association. He writes today to commemorate Law Day, which was established by President Eisenhower to observe our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.