Quite the Year, and Quite the Year Ahead – by Susan J. Kohlmann, President

Susan J. KohlmannAs they say these days, 2023 has been “a lot.” A Supreme Court ruling set back affirmative action, even as we were still reeling from the ruling curtailing women’s rights to control their own bodies. Those monumental issues, along with the first land war in Europe since World War II, were then swept off the front page by Hamas’s attack on Israel and Israel’s response in Gaza. Those events, in turn, have reverberated globally and ignited domestic issues, including among law schools and across the legal profession, involving free speech, hate speech, and which is which in the mind of the speaker and the ear of the beholder.

As we continue through the holidays and toward the new year, I hope we all can take a breath, spend time with family and friends, and take care of ourselves. Remember that our Lawyer Assistance Program and our Mindfulness & Well-Being in Law Committee are there for us and our families.

We need to rest up and recharge, because 2024 promises to be a lot and a whole lot more. That’s because the coming year is shaping up as nothing less than a showdown between the rule of law and – it’s too late to mince words – autocracy. We have a leading presidential candidate, who has won the office before, who has pledged to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections.” He said immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of our country. He said he will be a dictator on day one of his administration. Headlines in the steadfastly cautious mainstream media point out that these words echo Hitler and Mussolini, and polls find that 23 percent of voters believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Do not mistake the rhetoric for mere bluster. Organized efforts like Project 2025 are producing a framework to, among other things, replace the 140-year-old merit system of the Civil Service with a regression to the spoils system of patronage, weaponize the justice department against political enemies, and invoke the Insurrection Act on Inauguration Day to call out the military in response to demonstrations.

And if this project is successful, how would it be accomplished? To a great degree it would be through the help of lawyers – lawyers not worried, according to reporting, “about maintaining their standing in polite society and their employment prospects at big law firms….”

Among the core tenets of our system of justice is that everyone has a right to legal representation, even those who show contempt for the law. Not among those tenets, however, is a license to weaponize our democratic institutions to empower government officials to “go after” perceived enemies. Abusing the letter of the law, devoid of any spirit of the law, is a morally bankrupt perversion of the justice system that is in fact anti-law, anti-order, and anti-law and order.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of welcoming district attorneys and their staffs from the five boroughs and the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor to the City Bar to honor outstanding prosecutors with the Annual Thomas E. Dewey Medal. Every year, we remember Dewey, who was elected District Attorney in Manhattan in 1937, for having ushered in the era in which the DA’s office has been staffed by professional prosecutors chosen on merit rather than through political patronage. Considering that the City Bar was founded in 1870 on the issue of replacing corrupt judges with judges based on merit, the “merit system” vs. the “spoils system” has been a recurring theme in this Association, just as it has for our democracy through most of its history.

If this hasn’t read like a normal column from the president of the New York City Bar Association, it is only because we find ourselves in a time far from normal. Standing up for the rule of law looks different at different times in history. It’s not about politics. It’s not about left vs. right. It’s about right vs. wrong. I would not be faithful to the founders of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and of the country for that matter, if I did not use my position to speak loudly and clearly at this time. The stakes are too high for us to avoid taking the present threats to our democracy seriously.

Maybe this strikes home with me because I am a child of the Holocaust – a first generation American whose parents arrived here as teenagers fleeing Nazi Germany. Even so, until now, like most people, I thought it couldn’t happen here. But I think we are now seeing how it can happen. It can happen through repetition of lies until a critical mass of people believe them and the rest of us become numb or burned out or normalized to the rhetoric as terrible things are spoken into existence. It can happen when leaders politicize the judicial process and intimidate those who carry it out, or those who speak out. It can happen when we all think someone else will save us.

As officers of the court and stewards of the legal profession, we lawyers have a special obligation to stand up for the rule of law and defend our democracy. We need to ensure that everyone is aware of the precarious nature of this moment. Throughout 2024, the City Bar will make opportunities available to our members and the public to educate our fellow citizens on civics, and on issues surrounding free speech and hate speech, and we will be updating our web page of “Election Protection Opportunities for Lawyers” to ensure that November’s election is free and fair.

Yes, 2023 has been “a lot.” And as we look back on the year, we are so grateful for and proud of the hard work of our committees and members not only in addressing the many challenging issues of the day, but also in supporting and improving the profession. True to its founders, this Association’s members and staff continue to speak out, educate and drive change.

So, let’s rest up, recharge and ring in the new year with resolve. We will need our voices to be loud and clear in 2024. When the next chapter of the New York City Bar Association’s history is written, let it show that we met the moment.

Wishing peace, health and happiness to all this holiday season.