In 1950, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy experienced a meteoric rise to fame and power when he charged that “hundreds” of “known communists” were in the U.S. State Department. McCarthy — and his followers and enablers — convinced millions of Americans that communists had infiltrated every aspect of American life. Behind closed-door hearings, McCarthy bullied, intimidated and lied his way to power, all under the false guise of patriotism, destroying many careers and lives of Americans in the process.
In 1954, he held Senate hearings charging the U.S. Army of being “soft” on communism. Joseph Welch was a soft-spoken lawyer who represented the Army. McCarthy charged that Fred Fisher (no relation), a young associate in Welch’s law firm, had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild that was a “legal arm of the Communist Party.” Welch responded, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” Welch then stated the immortal words that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
You are entering law school at a moment when three of our most cherished values as Americans are at a crossroads: truth, civility and decency. In all of our lives there are moments of truth, and now is our moment of truth.
Our work has never been more important than it is right now. Now, more than ever, we need lawyer-leaders to defend these values and the rule of law.
This summer’s compelling congressional hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol are a reminder of the fragility of our democracy. Many of the violent insurrectionists carried American flags under the guise of patriotism — but let’s be clear, their actions were disgraceful and unpatriotic.
We must always defend peaceful protest and the right to challenge electoral procedures in the courts, but the actions of the rioters that fateful day ran contrary to what we teach at our law school. It was a direct assault on the heart of our democracy, the rule of law and our long history of peaceful transitions of presidential power.
But let’s also remember that the actions of the rioters were a failure, and the guardrails of democracy worked. After the November 2020 election, all legal avenues for challenges were open, and the court system worked. There was no finding anywhere of widespread fraud or election irregularities. The results were confirmed and certified by every state. The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis to carry out its constitutionally mandated peaceful transfer of power. Courageous men and women of both political parties stood up to efforts of intimidation and falsehoods and followed the law.
Here is what one U.S. senator said on Jan. 6: “The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken. … If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever. … We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities with nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.”
The senator who spoke those words was the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell. I quote him because they are not partisan observations favoring liberal or conservative policies, parties or personalities. Rather, they are offered as uncomfortable but sober truths that must be spoken if we are to preserve our democracy and commitment to the rule of law.
One of the core tenets of our profession is that facts matter. Lawyers understand the facts, follow the evidence, make arguments and abide by the rulings of our judiciary.
Fidelity to the rule of law does not mean that the law is always just. We all have work to do in making it better. But when our nation has achieved anything of consequence, it has done so most often through civil debate and measured compromise. We are at our best when we are showing humility, listening to other views, respectfully debating differences and building consensus.
We seek to be a law school where we welcome and celebrate diverse viewpoints, but where we also share common values. We want you to understand not only your client’s position, but also the complex motivations and positions of all parties.
We want you to understand that reconciling differences is as important as winning cases. That even as you advocate for your clients, you must remain committed to the law and civility.
We want you to see the practice of law as a calling to serve others, and we are committed to graduating students who are open-minded leaders, change makers and advocates of justice.
The rule of law depends not on institutions such as courts and legislatures, but on the integrity of the individual human beings who make up those institutions.
Take time to think and decide what kind of leader you want to be. Think about the skills we need to discern truth, to uncover and reveal bias and communicate across differences. We need citizens who are trained in the law, know how to discern what is true and what is a lie and have the courage to speak up when our democracy is threatened.
All people of good faith should stand firm on our principles of democracy and speak up for them in moments like these. Draw your line in the sand like Joseph Welch did in 1954.
So many of you came to law school not only to learn law, but to live justice. To advocate for fixing what’s broken. To forcefully call out injustice and decry inequality.
The rule of law is the foundation of democracy, and lawyers and judges are the guardians of the rule of law. Think of yourselves as more than law students. Think of yourselves as future custodians of democracy and guardians of justice.
It is not hyperbole to say that our hope for the future of democracy lies with you. The world needs you now more than ever.
Lee Fisher is dean and Joseph C. Hostetler-BakerHostetler chair in law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. He is the former Ohio attorney general, lieutenant governor, director of the Ohio Department of Development, chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission, president and CEO of the Center for Families and Children, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, state representative and state senator.