Since 2016, many Americans have registered their discontent with the Trump Administration’s often flagrant disregard for the norms and expectations of American politics. Many of the battles related to the administration’s controversial actions have been fought in the country’s federal courthouses, and lawyers are often on the front lines of these fights – from lawsuits related to the President’s possible violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause to the administration’s widely deplored separation of migrant families.
As a result, lawyers have a special interest in preserving the rule of law and the foundational structures of American democracy. Lawyers are, of course, not ideologically monolithic – there are plenty of attorneys, both inside and outside the federal government who have stood on the side of the Trump Administration in these legal fights.
Still, many of America’s lawyers find themselves profoundly concerned with the strength of the nation’s legal institutions after more than two years of sustained assaults by the Trump Administration. In reaction, high-profile attorneys from some of the country’s most prestigious law firms formed the group Lawyers Defending American Democracy in late February.
A Non-Partisan Advocacy Group
Lawyers Defending American Democracy announced its formation in an open letter – signed by more than 200 prominent attorneys – posted to its new website. The letter argues that lawyers cannot remain silent in the face of the Trump Administration’s “disregard” of the core principles of American democracy.
“As lawyers, we have the responsibility to defend the underlying constitutional values and norms of political behavior on which our democracy depends,” the letter reads. “The President’s attacks on these core American democratic principles undermine the foundations of our Constitution and threaten the rule of law.”
The letter calls on the Trump Administration to “respect and honor” the importance of an independent media, Department of Justice and judiciary, honest public officials and equal treatment for all Americans, including ethnic minorities.
“Unless challenged and checked, this pattern of disregard weakens the norms that underpin American self-government and invites unfettered Executive power – transforming the United States from a democracy to an autocracy,” the group says in its letter. “As members of the legal profession, pledged to support the rule of law and the constitutional separation of powers, we must not allow this to happen.”
Legal Heavy Hitters
The 200 attorneys who signed the letter and formed Lawyers Defending American Democracy are not anonymous lawyers. Attorneys from some of the most prominent firms in the country have joined LDAD.
The head of the group is Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general and current senior counsel at Casner & Edwards in Boston (the group made clear that the attorneys speak for themselves and do not represent the views of their firms).
In addition, the signees include partners from a number of Big Law firms across the country, prominent law professors and former US attorneys and federal judges.
A Questionable Impact
Still, while there’s no doubting the sincerity of the group’s members, Lawyers Defending American Democracy’s actual on-the-ground impact might be limited. A member of the group’s steering committee, attorney John Montgomery, told the The National Law Journal that the organization has no plans to participate in lawsuits against the Trump Administration.
Instead, Montgomery said, “the sole focus of the group is mobilize and amplify the voices of lawyers.”
What that mobilization and amplification will actually achieve remains an open question. There has been no shortage of prominent, respectable figures publicly decrying Donald Trump ever since he first declared his candidacy in 2015, and that respectable repulsion obviously did not prevent Trump from either winning the presidency or pushing an extremist agenda once in office.
At this point, it seems clear the final verdict on the Trump Administration will be delivered by ordinary voters at the ballot box in 2020, not by prominent lawyers in a courtroom.