Sunday, April 11, 2021
As we continue to make progress toward a post-pandemic future, we need to recognize that COVID is not the only force that has driven us apart from one another. We are hopeful that social distancing requirements will be relaxed in the coming months, but we’d be naïve to believe that physical proximity will be sufficient to bring us all back together.
I was reminded of that reality this morning by a Star-Tribune article about the bar owner in Albert Lea, Minnesota who defied the governor’s pandemic restrictions and is now on the run. What was most striking in the coverage were the diametrically opposed opinions of Albert Lea residents: some praised her for bravely resisting government overreach, and some condemned her for prioritizing herself over her community’s health.
So how should we train our graduates to be effective lawyers for the bar owner in Albert Lea? She has, I presume, a deep-seated opposition to wearing masks as a response to the COVID pandemic, as may virtually all of her customers, business associates, family members, and friends. When she asks our graduate for advice regarding compliance, how should our graduate respond? With a categorial “you must comply,” or should she also opine on the chances of an enforcement action, the potential penalties, or the legality of encouraging customers to invoke disability exemptions from mask-wearing? Does our graduate’s own view of masks’ efficacy as a virus safeguard matter to her advice? Does our graduate’s belief that her client is misunderstanding the purpose and intent of the mask mandate matter to her advice? What if she believes that the misunderstanding is shared widely by all of the groups whose views matter to her client? And how can she ensure that she is navigating these tensions with client-centered humility without undermining the rule of law? Put simply, how should relationships matter to a lawyer’s work in our deeply divided nation?
This is not just about COVID, of course. Our responses to pandemic restrictions are part of a broader set of beliefs that together comprise the social identities that are driving the grand sorting of our nation into increasingly distant and hostile camps. Our perception of the debates surrounding the Derek Chauvin trial, the influx of undocumented immigrants in Texas, Georgia’s new election laws, climate change, the prioritization of religious liberty, and a wide variety of pressing policy issues are shaped by the lenses we bring. Increasingly, Americans’ lenses are based on the camp with which they identify, rather than on their own assessment of the particular issue’s merits.
This is one reason why I believe that legal education is absolutely essential to our nation’s future. Law schools teach suspension of judgment, critical thinking, the cultivation of trust, precision with language, detached empathy, and the courage to represent unpopular clients and causes – these are all important habits for a divided nation. And Catholic law schools should bring a long-overlooked dimension to the conversation: a willingness to go deeper, to discuss moral claims and the relationships that give rise to them. If lawyers are not attentive to this dimension, we will be of limited help bridging a divide that is not primarily about legal interpretation or technique, and is not simply a product of opposing moral claims—it’s a product of cultures that shape and sustain opposing moral claims. Lawyers need to learn how to build trust across cultural boundaries.
We should think carefully about how we respond to the pressure points that our nation’s division will produce in the coming days. We should never use division as an excuse to weaken our moral commitments, to withdraw from political engagement, or to slide toward an apathy-driven acceptance of the status quo. However, we should be clear that the mission of Catholic legal education is not ultimately a call to win the battle for one warring camp or the other – it’s a call to help restore the relationships that have been broken.