BY TIFFANY BENJAMIN
Former Attorney General Janet Reno spoke on Wednesday about the ability of lawyers to make a difference in a changing American society. Reno visited Harvard Law School for a speech hosted by the American Constitution Society entitled “Terrorism, Technology and Law Enforcement.”
Reno, a graduate of the class 1963, served as the first female U.S. Attorney General from 1993-2001. On Wednesday she spoke to a crowd of over 400 students, faculty and guests on issues pertaining to public interest lawyering and the future of law in the face of current trends in public policy.
“During a time when there are difficult balances between civil liberties, we thought that she could lend her personal experience to supplement theoretical debates in class,” said 2L Adam Neufeld, president of American Constitution Society. “She represents ACS’ commitment to public service and public interest in general. She was invited because of her personal insight, the fact that she’s incredible and because she fits our commitment to public service.”
Prof. David Barron introduced Reno and also spoke on the impact of public interest lawyering on society as a whole. Reno used personal stories and insights to broadly covered topics from national security to voting to education to prisons to healthcare to childcare issues, emphasizing the importance of overall change to the legal system as opposed to addressing specifics on current issues of terrorism and law enforcement.
“For all that we talk about due process and openness, the most important issue that we face as lawyers is the fact that our nation has failed to invest in its people – inadequate measures to prepare them for a world of high tech jobs, to prepare them for a world that is extremely competitive,” said Reno.
Reno went on to discuss problems that the overall American population faces. “So many people that I have talked to distrust politicians, corporations, after Enron, and distrust lawyers for a variety of reasons. They don’t vote because they don’t think it will make a difference. Budget cuts are for them and tax cuts are for the rich.”
“Lawyers must address these [issues] with a special responsibility and a special sense of duty. You cannot have a significant part of the population as discouraged and disheartened and untrusting of our legal institutions and government institutions.”
Reno also talked about issues lawyers will face in the future. “For so long now I have talked about the fact that too many Americans do not have access to the law or to justice.”
She also criticized the adversarial system, while suggesting the need for a system with an objective screening of evidence. “The next effort we must take is to enhance our ability to seek the truth.”
She charged lawyers with the duty of making sure that they were vocal about these issues, in particular unpopular opinions. She encouraged lawyers to defy any idea that criticizing government foreign policy was un-American. “If we are to make any difference, though, we have to speak out.”
The floor was then opened for questions, where Reno responded to inquires relating to the stand-off in Waco, national security and re-entry programs for newly released prison inmates.
“I liked how she addressed issues about educating children in their first three years of life,” said 1L Jennifer Gray. “I like her overall on young people as well.”
Reno throughout her speech emphasized the ability of lawyers to change and improve the world around them.
“You have a special duty as lawyers to do everything you can to make sure that law and the institutions that law creates serve the people,” said Reno.