From time to time I have voiced my concern over the continued loss civility in our society and in the practice of law. In the context of society, it is harder to diagnose why we tend to be less kind to one another but if forced to guess, I would lay significant blame on the doorstep of the television pundits who gained popularity by rudely screaming their points of view over the voices of their guests. Of course that blame only begs the question of why have those commentators become popular in the first place. I guess, as a society we have some fascination with rule-breaking, so when the first of such rude characters appeared on the news scene, it was a probably a novelty but with the popularity of that novelty others imitated and eventually we have come to accept that this is a proper way to have a dialogue or to debate the merits of our ideas. Once the forum for public discourse becomes a rudefest (I think I just coined a word), should it surprise any of us that such an approach would permeate all aspects of life?
It is one thing to accept that popular media often aims for the lowest common denominator but it is entirely another to accept rude and uncivil behavior as the norm at the highest levels discussion and decision-making. I was deeply troubled by a recent article published in The New York Times detailing the latest shift in the United State Supreme Court. Over the history of the Court, we have become accustomed to shifts in the collective political leaning of the Court but this latest shift is of a different political kind. It is a shift from civility to rudeness – from Cronkite to O’Riely.
I suspect that as Justices give speeches in law schools and Bar Associations they will lament, as judges often do, the continuing slide in the level of courtesy and professionalism in the legal profession, without even the slightest acknowledgement that their own behavior contributes to that slide. In fact, I would suggest that the Court’s newly embraced level of rudeness will serve as the greatest accelerator to the loss of professionalism – after all, can a young lawyer be expected to know that such behavior and approach to advocacy is inappropriate if it is the modus operandi of the nation’s highest court? Perhaps, the New York Times has shed new light on the real reason for Justice Thomas’ refusal to ask questions during oral arguments – maybe he is refusing to assist in turning arguments before the Court into the latest episode or Glenn Beck or Nancy Grace.
Click here to read The New York Times Article