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Speech by Richard Garriott as New President of Virginia Bar Association


The following remarks were made by Richard Garriott upon his election as President of the Virginia Bar Association on January 26, 2019:

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This infamous line by Dick the Butcher in Henry VI Part Two has been used for half-a-millennia to poke fun at our profession. However, Shakespeare was not commenting on the evils of lawyers but lauding us as the protectors of the Rule of Law and fundamental freedoms.

While Dick the Butcher is a fictional character, Jack Cades, to whom he was speaking, was real. In 1450 Cades led a rebellion against King Henry VI. In his rebellion, Cades just like Wat Tyler, in The Peasant’s revolt, which took place 80 years earlier, targeted the legal profession, and more importantly the Courts, for destruction.  Both rebellions targeted the institutions surrounding the Rule of Law because that was how they could seize power.

Shakespeare knew that populist uprisings can only succeed if they destroy the Rule of Law and the very institutions that preserve English liberties. This quote, from Dick the Butcher reminds us that lawyers have a special obligation to be watchful for threats to liberties and freedoms.

Both the Peasants’ and Jack Cades’ Revolts ultimately failed. However, history tells us over and over again of the serious ramifications that can occur when populism overtakes a society.  In The 1780s when the French populist overthrew the Capetion Dynasty, one of the first things the Committee for Public Safety did was to destroy the Royal Courts and the Royal legal system. By tearing down these institutions they were able to take full control and institute the bloodbath of the Reign of Terror.

In the 20th century both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were swept into power by an electorate caught up by the rise of populism and the desire for new leadership. Once in power, both these dictators quickly ignored, and destroyed, democratic institutions in both Italy and Germany. What followed was the rise of fascism across Europe and ultimately the calamity of World War II.

Populism has historically been a precursor to authoritarianism. Just like in 1930s Europe, today authoritarian leaders rise to power on waves of populism. This is happening in Venezuela, Peru, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and Brazil. In the United States, our institutions have traditionally limited the impact of populist leaders who might become authoritarians. In the past we’ve come very close to seeing our institutions swept aside. However, the guardrails of democracy have always traditionally held.

Today, we live in very frightening times. Tribalism in our country has become rampant. It seems almost normal to have leaders on both the right and the left question the Constitution, the Courts, and the departments of the executive branch charged with upholding justice. Once the tearing down of the guardrails that protect our liberties becomes normalized, we will be on a path to complete self-destruction. That is why it is our obligation as Virginia lawyers to stand up and constantly call for the protection of the rule of law and the institutions that protect and nourish it.

Throughout our nation’s history, Virginia lawyers have always led the way in ensuring our democratic institutions have been strong and have protected liberties that our ancestors fought so hard to give us.  Rather than call for an end to English common law and the legal systems that protect the rule of law, it was Virginia lawyers Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson who used the rule of law and democratic institutions to prove to the world that we were ready, willing, and able to stand on our own against the greatest power on earth.

During our fledgling Republic, Virginia lawyer John Marshall set the precedent that our judiciary was, in fact, independent, and enshrined in our democratic system that the judiciary was, and is, a coequal branch of government.

It was Norfolk’s first female lawyer, Pauline Adams, who helped lead the fight for women’s suffrage and let’s not forget the tremendous work of Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson who utilized the courts to secure civil rights for all of Virginians regardless of race and end the disgraceful era of Jim Crow.

All of these Virginia lawyers used the rule law to help our democracy grow and flourish. Each of them lost many of the battles they fought, but in doing so they did not question our judiciary as an institution. Their actions ensured that the guardrails that protect our rights remain strong during times of tremendous change.

Today our democracy is facing serious threats from all sides.  Politicians call for violence against their opponents, they use fear to justify ignoring due process, there is political violence in the streets, and the average citizen questions the integrity of our democratic institutions.  If we are going to preserve these hard fought freedoms, Virginia Lawyers, and this Association must stand and call for sanity in our public discourse.  Virginia Lawyers have a special obligation through our actions and words to show that you do not have to hate someone who disagrees with you, that you can agree to disagree and still be civil and respectful to one another and their differing viewpoints.

For 131 years, the Virginia Bar Association has been the independent voice of the Virginia lawyer.  When the VBA spoke, people have listened and acted.  When the Bar Association remained silent, that silence was thunderous.  Never before has the mission of the VBA been more vital.  All of us, regardless of our political philosophies should now take on the mantle that our predecessors so willingly took up, and individually and as an Association we must advocate the importance of our democratic institutions.  I ask each of you to take the Principles of Professionalism that were issued ten years ago and read it, use it, and encourage others to follow it as well.  Only when we lead, will others follow.  Thank you.