President's Page: What has happened to the rule of law?
Vol. 77, No. 1 / Jan. - Feb. 2021
John Gunn practices with Gunn Law Firm PC in St. Louis.
Americans ask this question – of themselves, of friends, of strangers on social media.
Perhaps two related questions drive closer to the heart of the matter. How does the rule of law work? As lawyers, what role do we play in making it work? Shouldn’t we already know the answers to these questions?
An alarming number do not know “how it works.” According to a 2019 Annenberg survey, only two in five American adults (39%) could correctly name the three branches of the federal government. This was the highest number in 13 years. According to the same survey, more than one-fifth of respondents could not name ANY branch of the government. In 2020, more than half of American adults (51%) surveyed could name the three branches of government – most likely as a result of impeachment inquiries, judicial confirmation battles, a contentious presidential election, and other events.2
Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of information, misinformation has free rein. This is a crisis. It is not new, and it did not happen overnight.
This crisis impacts every American, whether they are aware or unaware of it. The right to vote is our most tangible form of engagement. It is where the rubber meets the road. It is also where the rule of law matters most. We are a country of laws – a free society governed by the rule of law, which depends on faith in the law and legal institutions and faithfulness to the rule of law. Nescience about how our system works undermines that faith. It blows a hole in the hull of American constitutional democracy, allowing in the rushing waters of disorder. It rips apart the fabric of our nation.
Let’s return to the second question. As lawyers, what role do we play in making the rule of law work? In the same manner as every elected official, each of us swore an oath to “support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Missouri.”3 The Rules of Professional Conduct direct us to “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.”4
The staff of The Missouri Bar and volunteers – members of The Missouri Bar and members of the public – commit considerable time and resources to civics education and celebrating those who work to improve civics education and understanding in our state. The resources provided by our Citizenship Education Program include extensive support for classroom learning about the state and federal constitutions, the law, the legal system, and the courts. We develop and publish suggested lesson plans, put on teacher workshops, and provide an in-service program on how to effectively prepare students for tests in American Government.
With more than 30,000 lawyers dedicated to supporting our constitutions and building public understanding of and confidence in the rule of law, there is no corner of this state we cannot reach. Individually and collectively, we must strive not merely to fill the void but to eliminate it.
Speak everywhere – at your children’s schools, to Rotary or other civic groups, in neighborhood bridge groups, on text threads with college friends, to church councils or prayer groups. Seize chances to discuss these weighty issues with your family, no matter their ages. Do something at every conceivable opportunity.
The President’s Message often includes a call to action. This time, I am making a heartfelt plea. Our system of self-government is sick and ailing; it requires aid. As the largest community in this state pledged to support the constitutions of the United States and the State of Missouri, you are our first responders.
Answer the call.
1 John Gunn practices with Gunn Law Firm PC in St. Louis.
2 Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey (2020), https://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/pandemic-protests-2020-civics-survey-americans-know-much-more-about-their-rights/.
3 Rule 8.15(b).
4 Rule 4 Preamble .