Standing Up for Core Values in a Politicized Environment: Reaction to Our Statement on Attorney General Barr

By Roger Juan Maldonado, President, New York City Bar Association

The past weeks have seen a substantial response to the New York City Bar Association’s statement calling for Attorney General William Barr to recuse himself from any ongoing or future review by the Department of Justice of Ukraine-related issues in which Mr. Barr is allegedly involved. Major media outlets covered the statement, various public figures reacted on social media and a multitude of regular citizens took to the same platforms to express opinions that varied widely in sentiment and fervor. Many were supportive. Others derided our statement as a brazen partisan attempt to tarnish the reputation of a Republican Attorney General. There were arguments articulated on many levels, from the barely-coherent and profane to the thoughtful and articulate.  

Our City Bar members who reacted did so mostly positively, although some disagreed on the merits and some questioned the propriety of weighing in at all on a matter they considered to be political. Some thought we should have gone further.

With this statement having received so much attention, and a fair bit of controversy, now is a good time to review the exhaustive process through which the City Bar comes to its positions, including this one. It’s not top down; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Barr statement is typical in that its authorship began in one of our 150 committees, specifically in our Task Force on the Rule of Law. The draft statement then went to other, relevant Committees for their review and input: the Federal Courts Committee and the Task Force on the Independence of Lawyers and Judges. Then it came to me, the City Bar President. Finally, I asked our Executive Committee to review it as well. All told, attorneys from a cross-section of practice areas, including former prosecutors, reviewed the statement. 

While an inherent perceived tension between our commitment to nonpartisanship and our dedication to promoting the rule of law suggested to some that this statement had political intent, we issued our statement out of a sense of custodianship of the fair and faithful administration of justice. Our mission calls upon us to promote law reform in the public interest, which has guided the work, for example, of our Government Ethics and State Affairs Committee as it engages in longstanding advocacy urging New York State government officials and lawmakers to implement, abide by and enforce meaningful and transparent ethics laws for our leaders. This has been done without regard to politics or partisanship. So, for instance, in 2010, with Democratic majorities in both statehouses, we argued that attorney-legislators could ethically be made to disclose client names – and should disclose them – as an outside “source of income” to which the public would have access. And, over many years and without regard to which party holds power, we have consistently argued for the creation of a single, independent statewide ethics enforcement agency with authority over both the executive and legislative branches. We called out Obama Administration officials for failing to be transparent regarding targeted killings, for failures to preserve due process at Guantanamo and for actions taken against women and children crossing the Southern border into the United States.

In 2020, the City Bar will be celebrating its 150th anniversary, recalling its founding by a burgeoning community of lawyers dedicated to fighting corruption in the justice system. We issued the Barr statement, therefore, consistent with these prior actions as a defense of core values that the City Bar has held for a century and a half, regardless of the prevailing political winds.  It’s in our organizational DNA to speak out on matters like this, and we believe the fair administration of justice is or should be a matter of concern for Americans of any political persuasion. As my predecessor as Association President, John Kiernan, put it, “The City Bar has consistently believed that advocacy in support of these values, especially if they appear to be challenged by proposed executive, legislative or judicial action, is entirely consistent with its institutional commitment to non-partisanship and inclusiveness of the full spectrum of political views.” 

The extent and intensity of the public response to the City Bar’s statement is evidence that it is a fraught topic, but also one that is of the highest importance. We speak not to play political games or to take sides, but to hold our leaders accountable to the public’s interest and to stay true to our values. We look forward to continuing to do so, and to hearing from our members and the public when we do.