f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

September 9, 2003

Giving Civil Disobedience a Bad Name

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 9:54 am

The New Jersey Law Journal reports that its Supreme Court has refused to swallow the civil disobience claims of bar applicant Zachary Sanders, who insisted his three illegal trips to Cuba (and two failed attempts to sneak cigars through U.S. Customs) were acts of civil disobedience against the “immoral and unjust” embargo on Cuban travel and trade.  (“Cuba Trips, Cigars Sink Bar Applicant,” by Tim O’Brien, 09-09-03) 


According to the NJLJ, Sanders wrote to the high court that:

“In my estimation, being a lawyer does not mean blindly following unjust and immoral laws. . . . “A healthy respect for the rule of law, and one’s duty to comply with it as an officer of the Court, does not prevent one from engaging in civil disobedience.”

He invoked Gandhi, Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr., and argued that if the character committee’s recommendation were to be followed, it would mean that “civil disobedience would be foreclosed.”

Well, we retort, not quite  — civil disobedience without consequences would be foreclosed, but that is not true civil disobedience.  According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, for example, Civil Disobedience entails “Risking punishment, such as violent retaliatory acts or imprisonment” in an attempt to bring about changes in the law.”  It does not entail breaking the law covertly, lying about it, and only espousing your worthy cause or political beliefs after you’re caught.


In my ongoing disagreement with assigned counsel in Massachusetts over their tactics seeking backpay and higher fees, I’ve seen similar attempts to water down the notion of civil disobedience.  The Massachusetts lawyers seem to feel that they just should be allowed to violate antitrust laws and ethical duties with impunity because — because they represent the indigent, because the State has so much power, because their fee demands are reasonable, because they’re angry and frustrated.   Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. would strongly disagree, as would the Massachusetts author of “Civil Disobedience,” who made his home on Walden Pond.   


Maybe children can break rules and only expect a time out, but adults — especially lawyers — need to face the consequences of their choices when they violate laws.   If they do, they might find their arguments about symbolic gestures and good causes receiving a far more respectful response.  

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