Sept. 29, 2022 — Erwin Chemerinsky, President of the Association of American Law Schools, Dean and the Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor at UC Berkeley School of Law was the luncheon speaker focusing on the turbulent state of U.S. democracy during the University of Houston Law Center’s new John M. O’Quinn Law Building and Dedication Conference last Friday.
“No form of government lasts forever. Democracies are there until they are not,” Chemerinsky said to the conference’s gathering of lawyers, academics, alumni and law students.
Chemerinsky focused his remarks on three key points: the evidence that our democracy is in crisis, the structural problems embedded in the original drafting of the constitution in 1787, and how law schools and legal academics can address this crisis.
Evidence that our democracy is in crisis, Chemerinsky noted, was the low public confidence in the U.S. government, including the President, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chemerinsky said the choices made in 1787 as to slavery and race gave the United States “bad bones for the government that followed.”
The role academia can play in promoting democracy is twofold. First, the research centers at law schools are key to bringing people together to discuss the issues. Second, law schools exist to train future lawyers who can make tremendous advances in the quality of the legal system during their careers.
Chemerinsky’s advised law students to “fight harder, fight better than we ever have before” to make a difference.
“There is a crisis of democracy, but it is not irreparable. It is up to all of us, law professors, lawyers, law students and all of society to work to find a solution,” Chemerinsky said.
President of the American Bar Association Deborah Enix-Ross served as the closing speaker and reemphasized the role of legal professionals in promoting democracy.
“Lawyers are uniquely positioned to make a difference, and we must lead the way in promoting civic civility and collaboration,” said Enix-Ross.
Enix-Ross also noted that students play an important part in our community. “The Law Center has one of the highest percentages of ABA law student members in the country. Law students are well positioned for not just a career in the law but a calling to improve our world and bring justice and freedom to more people.”
The conference’s theme, “Legal Education and the Legal Profession in Promoting Democracy and Community in the 21st Century,” was discussed from different perspectives across the bar, the judiciary, law firms and legal employers.
Panelists shared a variety of recommendations for how legal professionals and academics can promote democracy, including community engagement, diversification of the profession, use of technology and civility.
Community involvement was cited by panelists as a priority for lawyers.
“Do pro bono because it is a pathway to have a soul as a lawyer,” recommended Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. “Build that into your profession as you go. Don’t wait.”
Alison L. Chen, Managing Partner at Akin Gump, noted how lawyers and law firms can give back to the community.
“We are part of the fabric of our society,” said Chen. “We are contributing our time and contributing our dollars to causes that we all believe in. That’s where you make a difference.”
Dominique D. Calhoun, President-Elect of the National Bar Association, stressed the importance of election protection engagement.
“The National Bar Association has been at the forefront of fighting for the right to vote for all Americans,” said Calhoun. “As protectors of the law, join us in the effort to make sure the right to vote is protected.”
Christopher V. Popov, President of the Houston Bar Association, also commented on how lawyers can get involved in civics.
“We live in an age of intense political polarization and misinformation. We, at the HBA, believe that lawyers have a duty to be informed and help inform the public on the intersection of law and politics,” said Popov.
The importance of diversity in the profession was another key area that panelists discussed.
According to the 2022 American Bar Association Profile of the Legal Profession, the demographics of U.S. lawyers have slowly shifted during the last decade. From 2012 to 2022, the percentage of lawyers of color rose from 12% to 19%.
“It is incumbent on the bench and the bar to continue with the march toward diversifying the profession,” said Judge Jenny Rivera, New York Court of Appeals.
Texas Supreme Court Justice J. Brett Busby, who works closely with the Texas Access to Justice Commission to expand access to justice for low-income Texans, commented on the use of technology during the pandemic.
“We’ve seen how much we can improve the efficiency of the courts using remote proceedings,” said Busby.
Remote hearings take longer but expand access to justice by allowing for broader inclusion of interested parties, according to a National Center for State Courts report.
The 12-month study analyzed 1.25 million minutes of judicial data across eight Texas court jurisdictions and found that remote proceedings during the pandemic increased access by allowing interested parties to attend without having to travel, take off from work or find childcare.
Laura Gibson, President of the Texas Bar Association, remarked on the importance of lawyer conduct, stating, “it affects the way our citizens view the legal profession and how they view the courts and the law.”
“Without public respect for the courts and the law, our democracy is threatened,” added Gibson.
To watch videos from the conference presentations, see playlist below.
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