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News & Press: Montana Lawyer

Bar has key role to play in restoring trust in the legal system

Thursday, May 17, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: The Honorable Leslie Halligan
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If men were angels, no government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

— James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 51 (1788)

In this quote, James Madison reflects that even a government of laws is ultimately “administered by men over men.” To address this inherent weakness, the framers of the U.S. Constitution developed an institutional framework, the separation of powers, to ensure that no one person can gain absolute power and stand above the law. Our system of checks and balances is designed to withstand various assaults on our government.

However, a confluence of factors is threatening the public’s trust and eroding the framework created by the U.S. Constitution. Increasing declines in public confidence in government and institutions are difficult to battle. Edelman, a global communications marketing firm engaged in surveying the public trust for the past 18 years, recently identified major declines in four key societal institutions – business, government, NGOs, and media. “The public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment.” Edelman reports that fewer than one in three individuals believe that government officials are credible. In this crisis, “the biggest victim has been confidence in truth.” According to the research:

Persistent references to fake news, linked to headlines around foreign government election manipulation have, unsurprisingly, had a cumulative, deep effect on the public. The inability to stem the perceived surge in disinformation has proven toxic: 63 percent of the U.S. general population finds it difficult to distinguish between what is real news and what is fake. The public is fearful, and trust is disturbingly low.

The public’s declining trust in civil institutions threatens the foundations of our society as well as the rule of law, and ultimately our profession. A democratic republic is built on the consent of the governed. What happens if the governed withdraw their consent?

The State Bar Board of Trustees recognizes the critical role that lawyers can and must play in restoring public trust in our justice system and the rule of law. At its recent strategic planning session, the Trustees identified as a primary goal for the 2018-2020 strategic plan “to strengthen the State Bar of Montana’s role as a voice for lawyers and the profession through programs and resources developed to aid the public in understanding the judicial system and the rule of law, building confidence in public institutions, and facilitating access to legal services.” To this end, the State Bar is committed to expanding law-related education initiatives, engaging the public in civil discourse on legal topics, and communicating the important protections provided to all of us by of the rule of law.

We are interested in receiving your comments regarding this strategic goal. Our two-year strategic plan will be presented for approval at the September Annual Meeting, to be held in Kalispell on Sept. 20-21. We invite you to participate in efforts to refine the plan, and to join with us as we implement it. With your assistance, we will endeavor to improve the public trust, advance the legal profession, and ensure that our system of justice works on behalf of all Americans.