I Do Solemnly Swear: Learning Lessons from Broken Oaths
On November 1, 2012, I stood with hundreds of fellow lawyers that had just passed the Illinois bar exam, including a rigorous background check, and took the following oath:
“I do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Illinois, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney and counselor at law to the best of my ability.”
On that day, I became an officer of the Illinois courts, bound by a promise that I expressly took in front of members of the Illinois Supreme Court, fellow citizens, and my family and friends. Of most importance, I made that promise of my own lips, of sound mind and body, with my whole heart.
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God. United States Senate Website
Sound familiar? Every January of every odd numbered year, members of the United States Senate state these words, purporting to make a promise between themselves and the United States Constitution, a promise between the Senator and the values of the office before them, a promise greater than anything stated on the campaign trail.
The oath that I took to become a lawfully practicing attorney in the state of Illinois and the oath taken by US Senators have only a few notable differences. Of note, the oath of a US Senator requires a higher level of dedication to the protection of the United States Constitution, imposing on the swearer of the oath a responsibility to not simply support the Constitution but to protect it from enemies coming from outside our land, but from those who would seek to destroy our constitution within the bounds of our nation. The Senatorial Oath, unlike the attorney’s oath, requires “true faith and allegiance to the same,” meaning to the US Constitution.
Over my legal career, I’ve been privileged to mentor many law students. Each of these students is working toward the chance to take the Attorney’s Oath, declining time with family, memorizing laws and rules, working endlessly toward a very real, seemingly intangible goal of taking the oath. 3 years of work, a summer of torturous preparation for a beastly exam. All to make a promise for the people. A promise to protect the constitution.
I write today to tell those very law students that the oath that you are working toward taking, the promise of making a promise that drives you to work harder than you’ve ever worked, it still matters. Even though we see US Senators breaching their promises in hopes of gaining reelection, we are seeing the mass sale of souls to something that the Founders feared.
When considering the role of the US Senate, one of the founders — James Madison, in paraphrasing Edmund Randolph, “explained in his notes that the Senate’s role was to ‘first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.’ ” US Senate Website.
Dear law students, those Senators that seek to subvert the proceedings to disqualify Former President Trump from holding office again are not leaders. Each has broken their oath of office that they took in favor of popularity, in favor of a man over country, in favor of white supremacy over accountability. However, you are bearing witness to history, and as you bear witness, take these five lessons with you:
- You are the choices you make. Many people will speak sweetly, say the right words, make you feel the right way, but ultimately, it is what you do and not what you say that matters when it comes to being a leader. And, make no mistake, as a lawyer and as an officer of the court, regardless of where you practice or the type of work you do, you are a leader. Period.
- You are who you hang out with. Remember that you are a reflection of the people you hang out with. Your mom said it to you as a kid (mine did, at least). If you think you can be friends with someone who supports the Trump Insurrection while believing that Trump should be impeached, think again. Who you spend time with is a direct reflection of the values you hold dear as an individual. Who are your friends, and what do your choices in friends that say about who you are.
- The truth always matters. There are no versions of the truth. The truth is the truth is the truth is the truth. It is your job to understand facts and create arguments based on actual fact.
- Good lawyers don’t lie. I’ve been in practice for over 8 years, and I’ve never had to lie to be a good lawyer. I may have dodged a phone call here or there over the years when I wasn’t ready to give bad news, but I’ve never lied to a client or opposing counsel. The stereotype that lawyers lie is not only patently false, it breeds bad lawyering. Tell the truth, always, and you’ll be happier for it. When in doubt, think to yourself — “What would Rudy do?” And then, do the exact opposite. You should be fine.
- Words do matter. Rhetoric matters. Do not be cavalier with your speech. There have been many phrases since the Trump era that make no sense to me. Maybe it’s my ignorance. Maybe it’s someone else’s. Fake news — how can something factual be fake? Anti-fascism as a negative concept — how is opposing facism a bad thing? Oath keeper — how can a person who launches a violent insurrection against the capitol be someone who calls for their elected officials to keep their oaths of office? Know what you’re saying, and don’t risk being misunderstood.
Lawyers in training, do not lose hope in the power of the promise that you seek to make, young law students. Your generation of legal minds will bring a new wave of transparency, accountability, connectivity, and inclusivity, that I suspect our current government is simply incapable of enacting, be it due to politicism, generational differences, or systemic racism. You will be better than what you see now, but you have to keep the faith that you are the better days ahead. My hope swells when I remind myself that help is on the way, and that help is you.