Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Role-Driven Ethics

Very few would question Gerald Uelmen's position that a defense lawyer owes his client vigorous advocacy ["Beyond Professional Codes," Spring 1997], but one should question the means by which lawyers pursue their work.

How many times have we heard attorneys say they are engaged in nothing more than a search for truth? Does that search involve manipulating public opinion in hopes the jury can be reached? Contaminating the jury seems to be all too much a part of the process.

What about arguments that come close to jury nullification, when a lawyer strongly suggests a jury disregard the evidence because it is more important to "send a strong message" than it is to exonerate a wrongly ac-cused defendant or to provide society with due process and justice?

As for journalists [whose professional codes are also discussed in the article], there is little question that a free press is fundamental in a democracy. But does our need to know transcend all other societal needs? Exactly when does the public need to know? Must we have our news in real time? Do we need to have information for public policy purposes in such a manner as to jeopardize the rights of individuals and the more general needs of society?

Let us face the unvarnished possibility that lawyers and journalists, like many others including politicians, serve themselves first. Law and journalism may, in fact, be driven by objectives far from noble. New clients are gained by winning cases; success at the bar commands higher fees and fame. Journalists find jobs at larger incomes with more prestigious newspapers in more attractive cities only when they are prominently published.

I agree with Uelmen that it is no coincidence lawyers and journalists are among the most derided professional groups in our society. But it is not, I assert, because they are misunderstood by the public; rather, an increasingly large number do understand, quite clearly, what the press and the legal profession are about, and they don't much like it.

Garth Norton
Saratoga, California