Keynote Remarks by The Honorable Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.

Former US Solicitor General Don Verrilli delivered the following keynote remarks at the Eisenberg Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner on Saturday, November 2, 2019 in Milwaukee.

It is an honor to be with you tonight to celebrate the vital work of the Wisconsin Equal Justice Fund and to learn about the legacy of Howard Eisenberg. The way he led his life, the way he used his gifts as a lawyer, should be an inspiration to all of us to commit ourselves to what is best in our profession.

In that spirit. I want to talk tonight about the rule of law, about what it means—or should mean—to all of us, and how the work that you do, and that you support with tonight’s dinner, sustains the rule of law.

What do we mean when we talk about “the rule of law.” Philosophers and scholars have been debating that question for ages. But I think the best answer is right there embedded in the name of this organization: EQUAL JUSTICE. It’s right there chiseled into marble on the frieze above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court: “Equal Justice Under Law.” It’s right there in the Preamble to our Constitution: “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” That is what Wendell Philips was talking about in the words that are the motto for tonight’s dinner: the first duty of society is to establish justice.

This point is so basic that most of the time we don’t even think about it. We just take it for granted. We are a government of laws and not men; no person is above the law; we do equal justice to rich and poor alike—right, of course. Most of the time, but not all of the time. Sometimes we are put to the test. These principles don’t enforce themselves. We have to choose to make them real. Our Constitution and our laws and these fundamental ideals embedded in them—they are just words on a page. And the courts that enforce our laws are just human institutions like any other. The world’s most oppressive regimes have constitutions. They have  laws. They have courts. And very often their constitutions and their laws proclaim the same commitments to fundamental rights and to the rule of law as ours do. What ultimately distinguishes us from those kinds of regimes is whether we really believe in those words on the page and whether make the sacrifices that a real commitment to these values demands. We can say all we want that we are a government of laws and not men or that we believe in equal justice under law. But what matters is what we do, not what we say.

We are being put to the test right now. We are witnessing attacks that I have not seen in my lifetime on the very idea that we are a government of laws and not men, on the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice, on the integrity and independence of the judiciary, on the freedom of the press, on the idea that all persons are equal before the law, on the idea that this is country for everyone and not just for people who are white and Christian. It is not hard to see the enormous toll all this is taking. More and more people have come to believe that the system is rigged, that our institutions are corrupt, that our Constitution and laws are just words on a page – just tools to be manipulated in the service of selfish interests.

This at least is what I see. So I think it is particularly important in this moment to recommit ourselves to what we stand for. In the United States of America, what binds us together is our shared commitment to our Constitution and the rule of law—to equal justice. We are not defined by a common ethnic or racial identity or by our geographic borders—not by blood and soil (as the marchers in Charlottesville chanted). We are not a country only for those who can trace their ancestry back for centuries. We are a nation built by immigrants. My great grandfather was a shepherd who came to this country in the late Nineteenth Century from a rural village in Italy with no education and no money. But like so many millions of others who came to this country—and who are coming to this country today—he started a business, put his kids through college, faced prejudice, became a proud patriot anyway, and launched a family that has tried over the generations to make a difference. Many of you in this audience, I am sure, share a similar family story. As was true with my great grandfather, to be an American is above all to share a faith in a common set of principles – no matter who you are, who your ancestors were, or where you come from. We have, each one of us, a duty to establish justice; to insist on equal justice under law; to maintain that bedrock commitment of our Constitution. That is who we are.

But that big obvious threat to the rule of law is not the only threat we face right now. There is another, less vivid threat—an insidious threat more chronic than acute—but no less existential. It is the threat that brings us together tonight: the access-to-justice crisis. This threat is every bit as much of a test for us and for the values that bind us together as the headline grabbing threat that we are all so focused on.

Many of you in this audience are leaders of the private bar. You know, as I do, that our clients pay us staggering sums of money to devote thousands of hours to solve their most pressing legal challenges – to ensure that our legal system works to protect their interests. And we give our very best to our clients to ensure that the law protects them. But at the same time meaningful access to our legal system is slipping beyond the reach of even the middle class, not to mention the poor. For them the government and the legal system can often stand as impediments to what they should be able to claim as a right in our society: the right to work at a decent wage, the right to housing, the right to health care. The justice that our laws entitle people to in theory is denied to them in practice every day, thousands and thousands of times. We have been talking about this problem for at least a half century now. And it’s not like we haven’t tried to address it. But I don’t think anyone can deny that this fight is more important than it has ever been. The inability of so many of our fellow citizens to achieve anything like equal justice under law is, if anything, even more threatening to what holds us together as a nation than the issues that dominate the headlines now. For millions of Americans, their sense that the system is rigged against them doesn’t just come from watching the wealthy and powerful ignore the law or bend the law to their purposes. They experience a rigged system every day because they can’t secure the basic protections that the law is supposed to guarantee them. Is it any wonder that so many Americans have become cynical about whether their leaders respect the rule of law when the promises of the law turn out to mean nothing in their own lives?

So in celebrating our honorees tonight, and in honoring the work that so many of you here tonight do, we need to acknowledge just how vital to the future of this country that work is. When you battle a landlord to make sure that your clients can live in a home where the plumbing works, the ceiling is not caving in and the doors lock, that’s an act of faith in our values. Your work shows your clients that they have rights that the law will respect, that they matter, and that they are not powerless to change their world. When you battle the Veterans Administration to make sure that that a vet gets the care she deserves to treat mental illness or drug addiction, that’s an act of faith. It tells that veteran that she matters, that she deserves the treatment you are fighting for, and that she has some control over her world. When you work tirelessly to dig up the facts that prove a man’s innocence and free him from death row, or when you fight to stop a deportation that will tear apart an immigrant family, those are acts of faith. And even when you fight these fights and you lose – and I can tell you from experience, you are going to lose some, even some you should win – it’s still an act of faith. Your client still knows someone cared enough about her to fight for her rights.

And what’s really critical is that each time you fight one of these fights you don’t just fight to give your clients a sense of dignity and control over their world – as important as that is. Every time you fight one of these fights, you stand up for the rule of law. Every one of these fights is a fight for the rule of law. It is a statement that we are all equal before the law, that no one is above the law. So this is profoundly important work. It is this work, more than any other, that fulfills the first duty of society to establish justice. Even if we pull through our current political crisis with the rule of law intact, it is absolutely imperative that the work the Wisconsin Equal Justice Fund supports continue. For what is our prosperity really worth if our legal system, the source that undergirds all this prosperity, can’t even protect the basic rights and dignity of so many of our fellow citizens? What have we really accomplished if that is the legal system we bequeath to the next generation?

All of us who consider ourselves leaders of the profession have an obligation to be stewards of our commitment to equal justice. Let’s make sure we fulfill that duty. Thank you.

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