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The World Justice Project (WJP) is calling on lawyers to lead in rebuilding trust in the rule of law.

In a speech before the National Conference of Bar Presidents (NCBP) covered by the WJP, retired U.S. Judge J. Michel Luttig told bar association leaders that “American democracy and the rule of law are in peril” and the moment has come for lawyers to defend democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and the rule of law, tasks for which they are “uniquely responsible and obligated.”

To support lawyers in standing up for the rule of law, the WJP has launched a U.S. Rule of Law Toolkit, which provides resources, scripts, and information to help lawyers discuss challenges facing our democracy and foster confidence in the U.S. justice system.

The first module of the toolkit includes a presentation “A Call for Rule of Law Leadership” and a sample script lawyers can use to engage bar associations and other legal communities in the critical rule of law issues of the day. The presentation and script can be accessed through the WJP’s website.

Dwindling public confidence in the justice system

According to the WJP’s 2022 Rule of Law Index, the U.S. ranks 26th out of 140 countries and jurisdictions in the rule of law. The Index bases its ranking on experiences and perceptions of the public, legal practitioners, and experts on eight factors including civil and criminal justice, constraints on government powers, fundamental rights, and regulatory enforcement, among others. Denmark and Norway were ranked first and second.

Notably, the U.S. ranks 103rd for absence of discrimination, 106th for impartiality of the criminal justice system, 115th for accessibility and affordability of civil justice, and 121st for absence of discrimination in civil justice. Moreover, when asked if “people can vote freely without feeling harassed or pressured,” only 58% of respondents in America answered “yes.” That number was 91% in 2016.

“Our moment has come,” Luttig told the bar association leaders at the NCBP meeting. “You will lead the nation’s lawyers in the most important effort ever undertaken by the legal profession.”

Lawyers’ obligation to promote the rule of law

The Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct lays out a lawyer’s obligation to promote public confidence and understanding in the rule of law.

The Preamble states: “As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.”

Moreover, “a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”

Over the past several years, many legal organizations have taken note of declining confidence in the rule of law and are working to support lawyers in furthering these obligations.

The American Bar Association (ABA) launched a  in 2022 to focus on restoring confidence in our judicial systems and the rule of law. Its work includes a conversation guide to help lawyers engage members of their communities in civil discourse around polarizing issues.

Past ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross appointed Commission on Professionalism Deputy Director Stephanie Villinski to this Commission in 2022.

Moreover, current ABA President Mary Smith recently launched a Task Force for American Democracy to focus on protecting and ensuring American Democracy. Judge Luttig and former Secretary of Homeland Secretary Jeh Charles Johnson are co-chairing the Task Force.

What’s going on in Illinois

In Illinois, the Illinois Supreme Court assembled task forces that have been working to identify challenges and advance the goals outlined in its Strategic Agenda. These goals include “Accessible Justice and Equal Protection Under the Law,” “Professionalism and Accountability Throughout the Judicial Branch,” and “Understanding of, and Confidence in, the Judicial Branch,” among others.

In addition, the Illinois Judges Association and the Commission on Professionalism have collaborated on a three-part program “Building Confidence in our Legal System.” The program brought together legal and community stakeholders to address disparities and facilitate conversations that will lead to reforms in the Illinois courts, bar associations, and community groups.

And, the Illinois State Bar Association has a Standing Committee dedicated to enhancing public understanding of the legal system.

“Over the past few years, the public’s trust in our justice system has been tested without many solutions to rectify the challenges,” Villinski said. “I applaud organizations like the World Justice Program for providing accessible solutions such as resources lawyers can use to lead important conversations aimed at restoring trust in our justice system.”

The WJP plans to release additional toolkit modules, including communications resources and guidance on compliance with Keller v. California State Bar Association, which restricts political speech by mandatory bars.

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Photo of Laura Bagby Laura Bagby

Laura Bagby is Communications Director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, where she develops and executes strategy to elevate the Commission among attorneys and judges in Illinois. Laura leverages communications channels to educate and engage with the legal community in support…

Laura Bagby is Communications Director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, where she develops and executes strategy to elevate the Commission among attorneys and judges in Illinois. Laura leverages communications channels to educate and engage with the legal community in support of the Commission’s mission of increasing civility and professionalism to enable the administration of justice.