After being a civil rights lawyer for 43 years I forced the N.C. Bar to let me resign rather than take “inactive status membership.” Allow me to explain why.
In the first paragraph of my April 2014 resignation letter I said: “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.” I wanted to quit the “club.”
All lawyers must pledge to adhere to the Rules of Professional Conduct, which says a lawyer must be “a public citizen having a special responsibility for the quality of justice.” Our nation’s founding principles set forth the noble goals of justice, equality, fairness, liberty, the general welfare, freedom, due process and the pursuit of happiness for all. Yet, we must sadly admit that our nation suffers widely from ever-increasing grinding poverty, a shrinking middle-class, lack of a living wage, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, an electoral system that is awash with private money poured in by the corporate wealthy, perpetual wars, NSA spying on literally everyone, no right to health insurance, a trillion dollars in student loan debt, racial and gender discrimination, police misconduct and killings disproportionately occurring in our poor and minority communities, drone assassinations and indefinite detention ordered by our executive branch, life-threatening climate destruction, the non-sense of corporations being bestowed by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1886 with the constitutional “rights” of a “person,” and the list could go on.
The legal “profession” is supposed to be a “professed” calling to pursue and protect justice and those other noble goals above. But it has failed to act as “public citizens” with a “special responsibility for the quality of justice.” Instead, it has become an adjunct to, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, the “rich and well-born,” mostly corporate elites who now control most elected officials through unlimited campaign contributions. The “profession” has become itself a business. I have often heard big-firm lawyers refer affectionately to the “legal industry” when talking to law students. These are the lawyers who charge $500-$800+ an hour. Meanwhile, unlike the other developed countries, regular folks have no right to a lawyer in civil matters and indigent representation for poor folks charged with a crime is mostly an assembly line to a guilty plea no matter actual innocence.
The ideal of 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 the pursuit of justice – lawyers and non-lawyers. So I pleaded with the Bar for a public discussion about the role of the legal profession in today’s troubled world.
As early as 1933 a similar plea was made by Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone in an address entitled “The Public Influence of the Bar.” Like today, 1933 revealed “a sorely stricken social order” with power wielded by “business and finance.” Justice Stone fussed at the assembled crowd of judges, lawyers, law professors and students saying: “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.”
After more than a year, I forced the Bar to create a rule allowing for me to resign but it refused my request to publish my letter and facilitate a moral check-up of the Bar. I am now turning to the public to demand that Equal Justice Under Law mean what it says.
Pitts, now living in Greensboro, worked for Legal Aid North Carolina for nearly two decades. email@example.com.