Ralph Nader Speaks on “Laws, Outlaws, and Outrage”


Sponsored by the American Constitution Society, Ralph Nader spoke about “Laws, Outlaws and Outrage” on March 2nd. Consumer advocate and former Green Party nominee for President, Nader enjoined the student population to have principles and breaking points in a society where many lawyers are using their skills to take away civil liberties.

“[The current] assault on the law is as basic, as well funded as any time in our history and we better make it a course of scrutiny,” asserted Nader. “I’m trying to communicate a sense of urgency. The world is in trouble, very tormented. Half of it is trying to make it on less than a buck a day. 20,000 dead in Africa today. No headline. We have great science and technology, they’re not going where they are needed except in sporadic acts of charity… The alternative to the law is violence. George W. Bush has taught us that.”

Lawyers need to realign themselves with equity and the conscience in their profession, according to Nader, even if such knowledge is not required on the bar.

“If you don’t study the history of your discipline, you are going to become a technition – only,” commented Nader. “Of course on the bar they don’t ask those questions, about jurisprudence, about equity. Another way of looking at equity is that it challenges you to be as imaginative as an attorney as you can be. Do you have an equity course here? No.”

Nader himself is a graduate of Harvard Law in 1958, and commented about the difference between the law school then and now.

“We were a class of 150, with one African American,” Nader recollected. “It was pretty grim. The conformity was stultifying, and we’re paying a penalty for that now. Because these are the same lawyers who have no breaking point when it comes to the ravages of the Patriot Act. They seem to have no breaking point about some of the rawest civil liberties violations.”

Nader said that his breaking point came at one of the alumni reunions where he looked around at his fellow classmates and realized that they were not doing anything meaningful. Nader subsequently began the Appleseed Foundation with approximately twenty of his classmates with a mission to set justice for America. The Appleseed Foundation is currently located in sixteen different locations.

“It’s not enough to exhort you, do this for pro bono, do that for public interest,” asserted Nader. “We have to institutionalize opportunities. We have a situation where a majority of lawyers are representing a minority of the population. It’s an indictment of our generation, not yours. We are not creating the positions for you. That’s what Appleseed Foundation is doing.”

Nader enjoined Harvard Law Students about their potential to do similar productive work and good for the world.

“I’m just trying to give you a sense of the potential,” Nader said. “What did it take? 20 classmates. All it takes is the right attitude, the right vector, the right use of our time. All it takes is a higher estimate of one’s own significance as one’s status as member of the bar. Your life is not to be totally controlled by whatever retainer comes in your office.”

Given the relative few public interest lawyers compared to the numerous corporate lawyers, Nader partially blames Harvard’s high tuition for the resulting mass of corporate lawyers.

“My tuition at law school was $1000,” Nader asserted. “Adjust for inflation, that’s $5000 bucks. What’s your tuition?”

Nader suggested that perhaps Harvard’s multibillion endowment could lower tuition to allow law school students to pursue their ambitions in public interest, rather than have to “sell-out” to go to corporate firms.

“[We once] asked law students: If you got the same amount of money being a public interest lawyer as you can in Cravath, how many of you would be public interest lawyers?” Nader stated. “85% of them raised their hands… Why would you be happy if you lose your own ability to wed your conscience with your own professional skills?”

Lawyers who lose their conscience create problems, according to Nader. Citing examples such as that the last war declared by Congress was World War II, Nader explained how lawyers use their education to circumvent the law.

“You cannot believe the creative minds of lawyers to circumvent the law,” commented Nader. “Let’s cut to the core here, Congress did not declare war against Iraq. What we did to Iraq was a war, an invasion. I’m sure you can find all kinds of lawyers who can make all kinds of excuses, circumventions. It doesn’t work.”

Nader bemoaned the lack of a remedy when Congress voluntarily gives up its right to declare war.

“The founding fathers never dreamed that the three branches would voluntary give up their powers,” explained Nader. “We don’t have a remedy. We don’t have standing to sue.”

Citing also that 95% of the House Districts in this country are dominated by one of the parties, Nader postulated that the two party system is just a “charade,” and that most of the House elections are “coronations, not elections.” Nader postulates that lawyers have lost their sensitivity to these violations of liberties because “normative action is considered an expression of a soft intellect.”

“Part of this is… intellectual arrogance,” asserted Nader. “Part of it is aversion to have the professors lose the grip on the classroom, because after all, everyone can interpret justice… And part of it is the Law and Economics school, one of the most intricate and sophisticated fantasies ever developed by the human mind sustained by the lack of empirical evidence.”

Looking into the future, Nader predicted a hazy future for young lawyers unless they develop a conscience.

“You will have to deal with environmental incursions that make a mockery of national boundaries,” commented Nader. “You will have to deal with invasions of privacies that nightmare of levels we can deal with at the present time. Are law firms able to functionally deal with these representations? The answer is no. They deal with the money.”

At the time of starting the Appleseed Foundation, Nader recalls he did not get much sympathy from the Law School, because Dean Clark believed that the creation of the Appleseed foundation would compete with the Law School for fundraising.

“It was like an ant competing with the elephant for ground cover,” explained Nadar. “Dean Clark was very cold to this effort because he felt like it was competing for fundraising with the Law School… They wouldn’t let us know when Harvard events were around the country.”

Nader is uncertain whether the current Dean, Dean Elena Kagan, would continue the precedent of Dean Clark of ignoring Appleseed Foundation. Upon Dean Kagan’s assumption of the position, Nader wrote a letter asking for her support, but never got a response.

“Well, that’s because she agrees with everything,” said Nader. “But then the culture of the law school moves in, a culture that is overly qualitative, how many buildings, how many endowments.”

Nader encouraged the students to take some time out to think about the purpose of the law school as more than just allowing opportunities for the purposes of individuals.

“You’ve got a great place here, but you hardly hear about quality,” he said. “What does Harvard Law School mean for the tens of thousands of Americans. [It would be a pretty sorry statement if] the most attention the Harvard university got in this decade was the Summers affair. The law school has to be reexamined by you. I know you have things on your mind but take some time to examine the law school.”

“Obviously I look at you as people with great potential,” said Nader. “All you got to say when you get out is you went to Harvard Law School and people give you the benefit of the doubt. Don’t squander it by going into highly lucrative areas that are nevertheless trivial.”

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