September 15, 2017
These times call for thoughtful engagement; we must speak up for the judicial branch
By Hal Coffey
The events of the last few weeks, nationally and locally, have given us all pause. From the protests and violence in Charlottesville, Va., to the ambush shooting of Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr. just across our border in Jefferson County, Ohio, it is a reminder of the trying times that we live in.
News from Charlottesville started to disseminate while I was at the National Conference of Bar Presidents in New York City. The setting allowed for discussion with colleagues from across the country, political spectrum and experience level. The common element we shared was being an attorney.
A key discussion point was what we as presidents of bar associations and as individual attorneys could do in light of the events. That led me to thinking about the many roles ACBA members hold within the community beyond the reach of their daily practice and clients. That includes service as lay leaders within religious organizations and members of local government bodies including municipal councils, zoning boards and school boards. Many of us are youth sports coaches, nonprofit board members and teachers at various levels.
As attorneys, we have a particular grasp of these events that other professions simply do not by way of our educational backgrounds and research and practical experience on a daily basis. In addition, we tend to seek the full picture of circumstances before reacting.
As a newspaper reporter and editor in what seems like a past life, I feel a more central connection with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The freedom of speech is a core tenant of our government and our public consciousness. Beyond the ability to speak, we all need to hear the opinions of others to better grasp what our fellow persons are thinking. Without that, we would live in a sheltered society where people of different backgrounds and thoughts never seek to interact.
But the right to speak freely does not provide government protection from the differing speech of others. And our courts and legislatures have set parameters for speech and assembly that must be considered prior to making such speech. Unlike posting anonymous tweets and online comments, marching in protests and speaking publicly does come with the open access of others to freely identify you with your words and actions.
That alone should give us time to reflect and make our words more thoughtful and poignant. It is not about self-censorship, but rather giving each of us the process to make meaningful comments on the issues of the day.
Part of our role as attorneys must be to speak up for our judicial branch of government. That doesn’t mean standing up for every action of every judge when those actions go beyond professionalism, civility or gender equality and diversity. But when we see verbal attacks on the judiciary because people disagree with the outcome or more direct attacks like the shooting of Judge Bruzzese, we must all stand up for the system we work in on a daily basis.
The ACBA does that through our Judicial Excellence Committee, which supports judges whom our members have voted to recommend for retention. We also do this through our ACBA PAC and lobbying efforts before the Pennsylvania legislature for adequate funding of the courts. We take very seriously the role of our Judiciary Committee in evaluating candidates for the bench and then promoting those ratings to the general public to better inform voters. And it is not all overly serious, as our signature Bench-Bar Conference seeks to provide direct interaction between our attorney members and our judges.
What I intend to do in reaction to these recent events is to engage with friends and colleagues even more than I have done in the past. Rather than shy away from difficult topics even in social settings, this is the time when we, as attorneys, should continue and expand our engagement with those around us to foment open, productive discussion. That must include discussion with those whose opinions and political leanings differ from our own. An unwillingness to step out of our social cocoons will not benefit us or society.
My hope is that you join me in such efforts with your own communities and those you do not usually engage within. Whether it is in speaking in support of our judiciary or listening to the opposing viewpoint of those around you, our profession as attorneys requires us to provide leadership and guidance both within the ACBA and the great community at large.