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Eye on the Profession: Dr. King’s timeless words from 50 years ago still ring true

February 22, 2017

TrimbleIn her recent installation address to the membership of the Indianapolis Bar Association, newly minted President Nissa Ricafort borrowed the title of a 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. sermon to implore us to get involved in our profession and our bar association. She reminded all of us that our profession is changing and that it is facing challenges like we have never seen.

Nissa was absolutely right, and Dr. King’s words were wise then and appropriate now.

The 1967 sermon, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” is reportedly one of the least remembered of his works. The sermon was offered roughly a year before his death, and it was a plea to his congregants to protest the Vietnam War and to take an active interest in the human rights of people living in third-world countries. To someone reading the sermon today, 50 years later, it reminds us of how little the world has changed in five decades. It also reminds us how wise Dr. King was in predicting the ebbs and flows of what he described as the “tide in the affairs of men.” What stands out from the sermon are the words that had application then and still have application now. They are words like compassion, justice, equality, complacency, fear, peace and love. The message was loud and clear; namely, that we must all be vigilant to the concerns and needs of one another and promote civil liberties and justice for the common good of all.

Is our legal profession confronted with “fierce urgency?” I submit that we are. We are living in a time when social and political views are as polarized as most of us have ever seen. Public schools, colleges and universities are tasked to teach students vocational and life skills, but seem to be lacking in the teaching of civics. News is now entertainment, and most people struggle to know whether the news they are receiving is accurate and unbiased; or consumers of news are purposely seeking sources that support and confirm their implicit biases. The terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” have entered our vocabularies. All of these changes impact our legal system, from the attitudes and views that citizens bring to jury service to the support (or lack thereof) for our judiciary.

On Feb. 7, the Indianapolis Bar Association issued a statement under the association’s rules for responding to unjust criticism of the judiciary. Cable news, Twitter, Facebook and other social and formal media would suggest that there is widespread disagreement among our citizenry as to whether recent statements about the federal judiciary have indeed been unjust or unwarranted. The leadership of IndyBar felt that the statements were unjust and said so. They were willing to accept any heat or criticism for doing so.

My pitch to all of you in our profession is simple: Truth matters. Public confidence in the judicial system that we occupy as judges and as servants of the court matters. We lawyers, as leaders of legislative, social, civic, fraternal, governmental and law enforcement organizations, are right in the center of this polarized world. Our voice matters! Every one of us has an obligation to pay attention and to speak out about injustice, unjust criticism of our judges and our system, and to do all we can to make truth the most important issue in the public debate that is raging. It will take courage for you to stand up and speak out. Muster the courage if you can.

Is there a fierce urgency facing our profession? You had better believe it! If we, the guardians of truth, don’t speak up and out, who will? #WillYouBeThere?•

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John C. Trimble (@indytrims) is a senior partner at the Indianapolis firm of Lewis Wagner LLP. He is a self-described bar association “junkie” who admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time on law practice management, judicial independence and legal profession issues. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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