Vincent Rougeau, Dean of Boston College Law School.

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Our Democratic Values Are at Stake

The Association of American Law Schools’ (AALS) 2021 annual meeting ended January 9 with a speech by the newly elected president, Dean Vincent Rougeau.

Rougeau’s speech served as a call to action for all AALS members as the community prepares to respond to various challenges posed by significant cultural, economic, and political reckonings in the nation. While it is tradition for the incoming AALS president to deliver such a speech, Rougeau’s delivery carried additional weight because of the issues at hand.

Before announcing his chosen theme for the upcoming year—a custom of the incoming AALS president’s speech—Rougeau took time to discuss the harsh reality of the nation’s battle with the coronavirus and the invasion of the US Capitol, two topics that stand to change the course of history in the United States.

Rougeau noted that despite the hopeful arrival of vaccines in recent weeks, Americans currently find themselves in one of the worst surges of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths since the pandemic began. As if that weren’t enough, the country now struggles with the fact that political division has boiled over into acts of insurrection incited and encouraged by the president himself.

“Yet another event has occurred that has left us shocked and shaken, and asking ourselves how this nation will move forward,” said Rougeau. “We have witnessed an event of domestic terrorism in which a mob of our fellow citizens attempted to prevent the certification of the presidential election results by Congress through a violent invasion of the US Capitol.”

Rougeau went on to discuss President Donald Trump’s role in the recent insurrection, saying, “What is worse, this desecration of the people’s house had the full knowledge and support of the president of the United States, and arguably, it occurred at his behest.”

While vaccines give Rougeau hope for a return to old routines and reunions with friends and loved ones, he reminded the audience that no vaccine will protect the nation from the enemies of democracy. “We now are fully aware that, for better or for worse, the world we knew before the pandemic and the attack on our Capitol is a vestige of a different time,” said Rougeau.

Moving forward is the next step and in doing so, Rougeau announced his theme for AALS in 2021 which is “Freedom, Equality and the Common Good.”

“As we emerge from the pandemic and begin to address the social, economic, and political turmoil left in its wake, I believe this is the right time to explore these three concepts critical to our understanding of democracy and the rule of law,” said Rougeau.

In discussing freedom, Rougeau explained how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted disturbing trends that were already present before the virus struck. One of these trends being the aggressive use of executive power employed by state governors to enact sweeping public health restrictions during the pandemic. Many citizens feel as though certain restrictions threaten their core constitutional freedoms of religion, association, and speech, which has led to a large movement to refuse such government-imposed restrictions, Rougeau noted. On the other hand, there are people who see the restrictions as justifiable, life-saving measures taken by the government on behalf of the citizens. This stark contrast in viewpoints highlights a serious lack of consensus, but more importantly, he argued, it has led to an explosion of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, deaths that have fallen disproportionately on the elderly, those of low and moderate income, and on communities of color.

“When we think about our freedom to act as we please and our right to be free from unreasonable government restraints on our actions, what role should countervailing responsibilities to our fellow citizens play in striking the balance? How can a democracy survive without empathy, mutual respect, and compassion?” Rougeau asked.

He went on to address the second element of the 2021 AALS theme: equality, specifically the struggles to understand its meaning. He touched on the historically high voter turnout during the most recent presidential election, which he sees as a sign of tremendous citizen interest in the future of the nation. He then brought up the brazen attempts at voter suppression and the recent act of insurrection.

“The visible expression of the democratic value of equality represented in the broad availability of the franchise is still a contested notion in this country, and it is inextricably linked to our history of slavery and white supremacy,” said Rougeau.

One simple reason why Rougeau chose equality as a piece of this year’s theme; it still doesn’t exist, he said. “During 2020 we were reminded yet again, through numerous brutal killings of Black men and women by the police, that our striving for racial justice has been insufficient and remains incomplete.”

To finish his point on equality he asked, “We all know that rampant inequality is an enemy of democracy. So, if we care about the future of our republic, what do we plan to do about it?”

Rougeau suggested that attention be turned to the concept of the common good. His idea is to think using the principles of fraternity to combat the virus of radical individualism.

“A democracy cannot function based on notions of freedom and equality that prioritize individual autonomy over those aspects of our humanity that may make us weak or dependent, or enrich us through our lives in community with others,” said Rougeau. “We cannot construct a political and legal system that fails to understand us as persons and as citizens who are embedded in, and ennobled by, our relationships with our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens. Freedom and equality are inextricable from a meaningful engagement with the common good.”

In closing, Rougeau posed a series of questions and issued a challenge to all in attendance.

“What have we learned from this year of pandemic and this week’s violent attempt to rob the American people of the right to choose their leaders? What does it all mean for the work we will do as teachers and scholars going forward? How might we reimagine how freedom, equality, and the common good can join together to strengthen democracy and rule of law in the years to come?” Rougeau said. “I have every confidence that you will offer some compelling and inspired answers.”

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