VOICES: I quit the NC State Bar for serving power instead of the people
In January 2014, Lewis Pitts retired from Legal Aid of North Carolina and the practice of law after 40 years as a public-interest attorney. Pitts helped start the Christic Institute, where he was involved in high-profile civil rights cases and won a $350,000 wrongful death judgment against the City of Greensboro, Ku Klux Klan, and American Nazi Party after the massacre of five protesters during an anti-Klan march. He went on to found Advocates for Children's Services, which focuses on education justice and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. His work led to legislation that bars the shackling of juveniles in court and a state Supreme Court ruling that schools can't deny alternative education to long-term suspended students without showing just cause. After his retirement, Pitts was awarded the ACLU of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Award for his contributions to the fight for individual freedom and civil liberties.
When attorneys retire in North Carolina, their membership status in the State Bar — the state agency that regulates the practice of law — typically becomes inactive. But Pitts sought to resign instead, writing in an April 2014 letter to the Bar that becoming inactive would mean he would continue to be subject to the agency's rules and discipline, which he did not want because he sees "an overall breach by the Bar as a whole of the most basic notions of professional conduct and ethics such that I do not want to be associated with the Bar."
As Pitts told Facing South, "I have a constitutional right not to be forced to associate with a state entity I don't agree with."
His request forced the N.C. State Bar to craft a new rule allowing an attorney to resign. After a lengthy process that culminated in the state Supreme Court, which gives final approval to Bar rules, the change was approved last fall. Soon after, Pitts — who now works as a personal trainer and volunteers with the Beloved Community Center, a grassroots civil rights group in Greensboro — made his letter public, saying he hopes it will "incite public conversation about the role of the Bar during these times."
This is his letter.
April 23, 2014
NC State Bar
PO Box 26088
Raleigh, NC 27611
Ronald G. Baker, Sr. , NC State Bar President
Sharp, Michael, Graham & Baker LLP
4417 N. Croatan Hwy.
Kitty Hawk, NC 27949
Re: My Resignation from the NC State Bar
State Bar # 20592
Dear Mr. Baker and Bar Folks,
I am a member in good standing with the North Carolina State Bar and have been since 1994. On January 31, 2014 I retired from Legal Aid of North Carolina and the practice of law. After over 40 years of being a public interest attorney, I am hereby resigning from the NC State Bar. I am aware of the options for "inactive status" but do not want to exercise those options because they would require that I continue to be "subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct and to the disciplinary jurisdiction of the State Bar..." My resignation is because I see an overall breach by the Bar as a whole of the most basic notions of professional conduct and ethics such that I do not want to be associated with the Bar. Below is a summary of my reasoning.
But let me say first that I take no pleasure in my resignation and the assertions below. I do not wish to be mean or flippant. The ministry of law has been a powerful force in my life and I have had the pleasure of working with many terrific people in pursuit of justice — lawyers and non-lawyers. I want these parting words to stir your minds and hearts into reflection, boldness, and transformational action. The harsh realities I describe are not readily apparent from the hegemonic corporate news that many rely on. But the naked simplicities of injustice are there in the alternative press. These should not be issues about which reasonable people differ. As my friend and colleague Michael Tigar, well known litigator and law professor, wrote: "When I speak of a prosaic and down to earth idea of justice, I mean simply that one can deduce principles of right from human needs in the present time." "Crisis in the Legal Profession: Don't Mourn, Organize" Vol. 37 Ohio University Law Review 537 (2011).
I became a licensed and practicing lawyer in South Carolina immediately after law school in 1973. I was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in the early 1980s and the North Carolina Bar in 1994. My work has focused on racial justice, environmental justice, children's rights, and participatory democracy. In February 2014 I received the Frank Porter Graham Award from the North Carolina ACLU "for longstanding and significant contributions to the fight for individual freedom and civil liberties in North Carolina."
Several years ago I resigned from the the South Carolina and District of Columbia Bars.
From my earliest days as a lawyer I have been concerned that the role of our profession has been to serve and protect the political and business Establishment and not to uphold Rule of Law; not to adhere to the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct mandate of being "a public citizen having a special responsibility for the quality of justice;" not to seriously fight for justice and equality for all. With notable exceptions for some very fine lawyers around the country and our state who use law as a tool for social change and see themselves as "public citizens," my career has seen the lawyers in our nation forego their ethical duties to seek economic and social justice and instead approach law practice as a business grounded first and foremost in making money.
One benchmark of such devolution was decades ago when lawyers were allowed by their "self-regulated" system to begin to advertise their services.
Justice Harlan Stone, in an address to lawyers, law professors, judges, and law students during the early New Deal years titled "The Public Influence of the Bar" (48 Harv. L. Rev. 1, 1934), summed up back then what I have seen during more recent times: "Steadily the best skill and capacity of the profession has been drawn into the exacting and highly specialized service of business and finance. At its best the changed system has brought to the command of the business world loyalty and superb proficiency and technical skill. At its worst it has made the learned profession of an earlier day the obsequious servant of business, and tainted it with the morals and manners of the market place in its most anti-social manifestations." Justice Stone described the plight of the country as a "sorely stricken social order" with the Bar doing much to serve business but "...so little to make law more readily available as an instrument of justice for the common man (sic)."
There is stark injustice in our land and the Bar stands mostly silent to its affirmative duty as the collective conscience of individual lawyers to speak out as "public citizen(s)" in opposition to these legal and moral wrongs. Law must be grounded in notions of shared moral values. These have been made clear in our Founding Documents: justice, equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the enjoyment of the fruits of one 's own labor, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare — as well as the values contained in the Bill of Rights. Today those values are treated as if "special interests" or on the fringe instead of being core values. The "morals and manners of the market place" trample these values routinely in capital's mad hunt for profits while selectively claiming "freedom" and "liberty" to expropriate and accumulate as much wealth as possible. It is this hunt for profit that has turned our legal profession into the "legal industry" serving the market instead of the People.
Today's "sorely stricken social order" contains monumental injustices. To list only a few such injustices: (1) our nation's President orders indefinite detention of individuals without charges or hearing; astonishingly, the President also picks from a list of individuals, including US citizens, which ones are to literally be assassinated without any formal charge or hearing; (2) our nation ranks internationally among "developed" nations as one of the worst with regard to levels of grinding poverty and wealth inequality between the 1% and the 99%; huge corporations and their CEOs receive millions of dollars yet pay wages so low we have coined a new term "the working poor;" (3) our nation has the highest rate of incarceration in the world; engages in "mass incarceration" based on racist assumptions and with racist results; every state has a growing "school to prison pipeline" so unjust that the US Senate held a hearing expressly about this pipeline in December 2012; (4) our nation's electoral system (state and federal) is awash with private money based on the absurd theory that the rich spending money that drowns out the voices of the vast majority is a protected First Amendment activity; the blunt, but accurate statement that we all pretend not to see, is that elected officials serve those who contribute the most to them; the distorting, corrosive effects of huge aggregates of capital accumulated through the corporate form and donated to politicians ensure public policy and laws that serve the interests of the 1%; we do not have one person one vote; we have one dollar one vote; we do not have democracy; we have plutocracy; (5) our nation engages in global wars over and for corporate interests at an unspeakable cost in human life, and suffering; financial resources needed for human services, school teachers, infrastructure maintenance, etc. are squandered on war; (6) our nation's highest court in 1886 declared, without providing any logic, history, or reasoning, corporations to be "persons" entitled to the constitutional rights of living persons; this silly construct has lead to corporate interests masquerading as "persons" striking down laws and regulations designed to protect the health, safety, and well-being of the People; (7) this same corporate power and its philanthropic "foundations" have purchased bipartisan electoral support for so-called "marked-based reform" of public education; these policies, incorporated into President Obama's Race to the Top funding scheme, have translated into a dumbed-down, drill and kill, multiple-choice test-based curriculum; trumped up attacks on teachers and teachers' unions in an effort to make them more like low paid factory workers; lead to privatization and profit-making from "choice" and charter schools; lead to resegregation of schools based on race and class; such "education policies" can never provide our youth with the critical, creative, and courageous thinking skills essential for any self-governing democracy of the People, by the People, and for the People; listen to how often you hear the purpose of education to be "competing in the global economy" rather than becoming a good citizen; (8) human caused (mostly by oil, gas and other big corporations) global warming and climate change that literally threatens all life in a matter of decades, not centuries. The list could go on to describe our "sorely stricken social order."
Yet, the Bar does little but applaud as Big Firms make millions; hourly rates on the corporate side are sinful. Meanwhile, we have no Civil Gideon to provide much needed civil representation for the average person. The quality of legal representation on either the criminal or civil side depends on the amount of money one has. What a travesty: millions of people desperately need legal representation while there are a flood of lawyers who cannot find work such that bar associations discuss the crisis of too many law schools.
Yes, the Bar routinely laments the public perception of lawyers and goes through highly publicized exercises hinting at our professed calling and noble goals. But they are mostly to create a better public image rather than change the substance of what lawyers do to serve the wealthy. The many lawyer jokes we all know reflect how every day folks feel about us: "What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A darn good start."
Hence, I resign from the Bar and have ceased all practice of law. But I will continue to exercise my First Amendment rights to actively pursue justice along with the millions of others already doing so.
I close with my earlier point: I hope the reasons for my resignation will generate meaningful discussion and debate within and among law students, law teachers, lawyers, judges, and every day folks about how the legal profession can better serve, not business and finance, but the public good. We must be a legal profession, not a legal industry one-sidedly serving market interests. We will all be better for it and so will our nation and state.