Oregon State Bar Bulletin DECEMBER 2015
Our Professional Obligation
By Hon. Thomas Balmer
Oregon Chief Justice Thomas Balmer was on the board of the Multnomah County Legal Aid Service, and also served as board chair, when he was in private practice in Portland. He was involved with the Campaign for Equal Justice when it was founded 25 years ago, is a member of the campaign’s advisory committee and speaks out in Oregon and nationally about the importance of equal access to justice. The Campaign for Equal Justice was started by Oregon lawyers to help support funding for Oregon’s legal aid programs. Since its inception in 1991, it has raised more than $24 million for legal aid and has advocated for increased funding for state, federal and foundation support. The following remarks were presented to the Campaign for Equal Justice’s Advisory and Leadership Meeting in September, the beginning of the campaign’s 25th year.
For 25 years we’ve made the case for legal aid funding. We’ve stressed the critical needs faced by the poor, the injustice that can occur if they don’t have legal help, and the heroic work done by legal aid lawyers — sometimes one small case at a time, other times through important test cases or impact litigation.
The Campaign for Equal Justice has urged you to contribute because lots of folks need help. That’s a critical message. But there are other messages that we need to be talking out about, and one of them is professionalism. We, as lawyers, have a professional obligation to help make the justice system work for all members of our society, regardless of their economic circumstances. Supporting legal assistance for the poor — through pro bono activities and through the Campaign for Equal Justice — is a key aspect of professionalism in the legal community.
Many of us have formally signed or committed to the Professionalism Statements of the Oregon State Bar and the Multnomah Bar Association. The bar’s statement includes this promise: “I will work to ensure access to justice for all segments of society.” Now, maybe you committed to that without reading it very carefully, but it sounds to me like you’ve already agreed to make a serious contribution to the Campaign for Equal Justice. The MBA’s Statement on Professionalism encourages you to “support the effectiveness of the legal system.” And, we all know that the system is not effective if people with legal problems don’t have access to a lawyer who can assist them.
Professionalism means a commitment not just to being good lawyers for your clients. It means supporting and taking an interest in the well being of the legal system as a whole. And that means promoting access to justice and contributing your time and resources to make our system of justice work for all members of society.
Some lawyers might express skepticism about signing up for things like “professionalism.” Well, you can’t really escape it. When you took the oath of office for admission to practice in Oregon, you became an officer of the court and swore that you would “support the Constitution and the laws of the United States and of the state of Oregon.”
The 14th Amendment provides that “no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws”; and the Oregon Constitution states that “justice shall be administered openly and without purchase, completely and without delay” and that “every person shall have a remedy by due course of law for injury to their person, property, or reputation.”
When we became Oregon lawyers, we agreed to support those commitments that the state and federal constitutions make to all citizens. That was our oath. It is a professional obligation of each of us.
We should all contribute to legal aid and do pro bono work because the need is there. But it’s also the special obligation of lawyers — an obligation that doesn’t rest on other members of society — to demonstrate our commitment to an effective justice system and to access to justice for all by giving generously to legal aid and encouraging our colleagues to do so as well.
© 2015 Hon. Thomas Balmer