The Vision Project

The ‘Rights’ Balance

Editor’s Note: In this BC Law Magazine “Vision Project” series, we are engaged in a lengthy discussion with Boston College Law School faculty about where the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant medical, economic, racial, and political consequences may lead us. As New York Times op-ed columnist Timothy Egan so eloquently put it recently, “Every crisis opens a course to the unknown. In an eye-blink, the impossible becomes possible. History in a sprint can mean a dark, lasting turn for the worse, or a new day of enlightened public policy.” There are warnings and worries in these professors’ views, but there are also farsighted ideas and strategies for crafting a better future, a more just society, and a world in which each and every human being is equal under the law.


PROFESSOR JUDITH A. MCMORROW

Professor Judith A. McMorrow currently serves as the Associate Dean of Experiential Learning and Global Engagement at BC Law. She teaches torts, professional responsibility and in the law school’s Semester-in-Practice externship program. Her scholarship is primarily in the area of professional responsibility and legal ethics.


McMorrow SquareWhat has the coronavirus pandemic revealed about the strengths and weaknesses of the rule of law and its responsiveness in times of international crisis? When the history of 2020 is written, what started as a pandemic flowed into a massive social movement to address individual and institutional racism and inequality. In slow-motion horror, we began to see that the coronavirus fatalities were not equally distributed and disproportionately affected minority communities. Lower income and often minority workers were at the front lines of assuring communities had food and transportation and other necessities—taking more of the social risks and receiving less of the benefits. The death of George Lloyd provided an 8-minute, 38-second painful visual of the disproportionate impact of racial treatment, another data point in a long line of events. One strength of our rule of law, and embrace of free speech, is that a social movement could blossom quickly and passionately.

The pandemic and the Black Lives Movement brought into sharper focus three huge challenges to the rule of law in the US. The pandemic alone stressed our federalist system and showed the need for fundamental respect and cooperation between federal and state governments. Of course, the US is built on a healthy skepticism of power, but there must be a critical mass of individuals who accept and are willing to support the institutions that govern us, even when we may disagree with outcomes. It feels trite and a cliché to write these words—that a foundation level of respect and cooperation, the skills we supposedly teach and learn in kindergarten, turn out to be essential to an effective system of governance. The second challenge, addressed by other writers, is our ongoing struggle to balance individual rights with collective responsibility. And the death of George Floyd and increasing public support for the Black Lives Movement gave momentum for a critical mass of the white community to recognize the injustices within our system and accept collective responsibility to be part of the solution. The rule of law requires responsibility—to respect others, to cooperate, to hear, to listen, to see, to work toward solutions.

What short- and long-term opportunities do you see arising from the pandemic for a new understanding of the necessity for a common, civic sense of responsibility and appreciation for ethical standards? In the short and medium term, I see more discussion and conduct that reflects the inherent community aspects of our lives. Many communities around the US continue to adhere to the public health guidelines even if not required to by law. Whether motivated by a desire for self-care, or to protect others, a critical mass of individuals see the interconnectedness among us because of the pandemic. In my community, a recognition of interconnectedness is evident every time I go to the store and see others being careful. And the momentum of the Black Lives Movement and steady discussion of inequality, and embedded consequences of a long history of racism, is emerging in corners throughout the US. I hope to see a continued embrace by white Americans of the responsibility to listen and learn, to empathize, and to see the interconnectedness of individuals in our society. No law can order this, no political structure can ensure it. This must bubble up from a reconnection to each other on a human level and become a cultural norm. Of course, not everyone will embrace this. (Indeed, the fundamental US right “to be left alone” may cause many to opt out, and free speech will make this is a messy and difficult conversation.) But there are signs of hope that we will have a critical mass of individuals who will engage in the community discussion to ensure that all members are seen and heard. We need to have an open mind and heart if we wish to improve our civic life and outcomes for all. Bottom line—to have an effective rule of law, we must have a better understanding of our community.

What is your vision for a post-pandemic world: What policies and plans would you recommend to guide us toward building and sustaining a stronger and more just society? In the post-pandemic world, I would like to see four major improvements. First, we need a significant investment in public schools, vocational programs, community colleges and public universities to enhance access to education. The origins of public education were to provide an educated populace that can engage in self-governance, thoughtful conversation, and be informed voters. It also is a fundamental way to demonstrate the dignity and worth of every child in our land. Second, we need a thoughtful, bipartisan review of gerrymandered districts and removal of barriers to voting to assure equal political voice. Third, we need civil engagement to discuss barriers to “getting ahead,” a quaint phrase that includes how we structure our health care, housing, community interactions and policing. It is a big agenda!

Read all faculty Vision Project interviews here.

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