June 7, 2023

Montana Attorney General Fights to Keep Revolutionary Extremists Out of Legal Profession

Austin Knudsen thinks character and fitness are still valid requirements. He is correct.

Editor’s Note: This column was coauthored by J. Christian Adams, President and General Counsel, Public Interest Legal Foundation.

As readers of PJ Media know, we are in the midst of a series entitled “Do They Teach Law Anymore?” that details what is being taught — and the misbehavior being tolerated and encouraged — at the country’s top 10 law schools, as rated by U.S. News and World Report. Columbia, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and the other supposedly elite institutions in that group have devolved from law schools into re-education camps full of critical race theory and the poisonous woke and cancel propaganda of the radical Left.

No longer content with teaching the liberal curriculum of two decades ago, these schools have now embraced a more malignant, utopian pedagogy that openly and explicitly teaches students how to collapse and reconstruct the American system of ordered liberty. This goes far beyond liberalism. It is explicitly and proudly revolutionary. What is being taught in elite law schools threatens the survival of our constitutional order.

Given the curriculum being taught, it is no wonder that conservative speakers are now routinely disinvited from campus events — or attacked if they do appear. The experience of Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law School was no one-off. He was shouted down, harassed, and threatened by students from the school, with the active encouragement and connivance of faculty.

The mob tactics of these future lawyers display a fundamental contempt for the First Amendment and the requirements of an effective justice system. They are using uncivil threats to silence and ostracize people with whom they disagree.

Our system, which is based on a civil and courteous adversarial process, only works with lawyers trained to engage in spirited and vigorous — but peaceful — debate to resolve disputes. When you are in a courtroom, you have no right to shout down your opposing counsel or to hurl invective at a judge who is presiding over your case.

Character and fitness have long been required for admission to practice law. So does taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The noxious behavior exhibited at law schools calls into question the character and fitness of these students — and sometimes violent progressive lawyers — to practice law. Austin Knudsen, the Attorney General of Montana, thinks character and fitness are still valid requirements. He is correct.

On May 16, Knudsen sent a letter to Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath addressing the growing “trend in American law schools” of students “using intimidation to silence opposing viewpoints.” These students, Knudsen wrote, “are self-styled members of the progressive vanguard and justify their actions based on the perceived evil of conservative legal views.” Disfavored “conservative” legal views include upholding the Constitution and adhering to the rule of law.

Militant law students engage in this reprehensible and unacceptable behavior, Knudsen observed, “in part, because they believe no consequence will flow from them.”

Knudsen is certainly right about that. With rare exception, law school administrators have taken no serious steps to address these outbursts, neither suspending nor otherwise disciplining the disruptive students.

Knudsen noted that the Montana Supreme Court, as the regulator of the legal profession in the state, has the “responsibility to place law students on notice” that such behavior is unacceptable for future members of the Montana Bar and that their behavior will jeopardize any bar admission they seek.

Knudsen specifically mentioned Judge Duncan’s vile reception at Stanford and reminded the state court justices that Duncan was invited to “speak on cutting-edge legal issues.” Yet Duncan was met with Stanford law students “hurling insults and heckling him.” When Stanford’s law school dean apologized to Duncan, “students at the school turned their harassment against her.”

Knudsen catalogs thuggish behavior beyond Stanford Law students.

He noted that at other elite law schools — Yale specifically — civil disruption is “fast becoming the norm.” Yet, as Knudsen says, outside speakers are important. Given the “monolithic” views of school faculties, those speakers will probably provide “the only diversity of viewpoints” students will get before graduation. Exposing students to contrarian views, he notes, will “prepare them for the practice of law.” But when students “shout these speakers down, they prevent their classmates from hearing opposing points of view — ensuring they never understand the legal arguments they oppose.”

Allowing mob tactics without repercussions sends a terrible message to future lawyers. The legal profession “relies on effective persuasion and depends on allowing space for opposing arguments.” Knudsen reminds Justice McGrath that if one of these students attended “an oral argument before your Court and heckled an advocate during his or her argument, you would rightly hold that person in contempt.” When this behavior is being rewarded in law schools like Stanford and Yale, “it’s only a matter of time before it rears its ugly head” in the practice of law.

Knudsen believes we are “at a turning point for the integrity of the legal profession.”

He’s right. The tactics that are stamping out speech arise from teachings that are increasingly revolutionary. Law school courses now commonly reject American norms such as free speech, fact-based decision-making, individualism, and Anglo-American legal principles that created the most benign and beneficial form of government in human history. Mob tactics combined with intellectual groundings in authoritarianism are a dangerous and incendiary mix. They threaten freedom in a way our nation has not previously encountered.

Knudsen cites Montana’s Rules of Professional Conduct that require lawyers “not to harass or intimidate others.” More troubling for these would-be totalitarian lawyers, they must “demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers, and public officials.” The students at Stanford who harassed Judge Duncan grossly violated that principle.

Students who follow their example should not be admitted to practice law in Montana or any other state.

Knudsen recommends that the Montana Supreme Court clarify that the conduct of students in law schools, “including conduct at speaker events and similar occasions where a range of perspectives are presented on key issues,” will be taken into account when they apply for a bar license in the court’s evaluation of their “character and fitness” to practice law. If those students have shown “hostility toward free, open, and civil debate on campus,” the consequences should be “delaying or rejecting” their applications and “requiring remedial education in profession conduct responsibilities.”

We couldn’t agree more. Of course, we doubt that any type of “remedial education” would actually do anything to correct the outrageous behavior and authoritarian attitudes of these students. We don’t think they will ever be objective professionals who can be trusted to do their work in an ethical manner.

But we applaud Attorney General Knudsen for taking this step, and we hope the Montana Supreme Court will listen. It’s time for officials in the states to block bar membership to those who seek to tear down and destroy our institutions and our constitutional rights — including free speech. Lawyers must take an oath to defend the Constitution. It’s time the oath meant something.

As the attorney general says at the end of his letter, the “atmosphere today in our law schools too often appears geared not toward the preservation of society and the rule of law but precisely toward its opposite: transforming it into a dystopia of mob rules and fanatical intolerance.”

This is not just a fight about loud students on campus. This is an issue that goes straight to the survival of the American ideal. Law students who seek to destroy it shouldn’t be lawyers.

Republished from The Heritage Foundation.

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