Bar News - May 18, 2007
President’s Perspective: Euros and Oaths
By: Richard B. McNamara, NH Bar Association President
One of the most enjoyable things about being Bar president is attending the swearing in of a group of new lawyers. I have always found the swearing-in ceremony inspiring. At the ceremony each new attorney takes an oath, prescribed by RSA 311:6 which provides: “Every attorney admitted to practice shall take and subscribe, in open court, the oaths to support the constitution of this state and of the United States.”
I thought of that obligation when I read that on April 18, 2007, the European Union approved legislation that makes denying the Holocaust punishable by prison. The vote came after six years of emotional negotiations, during which countries with vastly different legal cultures struggled to reconcile protection of freedom of speech with protection of their citizens from racism and hate crimes. The new legislation calls for prison terms of as much as three years for “intentional conduct” that incites violence or hatred against a person’s “race, color, religion, descent, or national or ethnic origin,” or for those who incite violence by “denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
The scope of the law does not cover other historical events like the massacre of Armenians during World War I by Ottoman Turks, called genocide by Armenians. The European Union also rejected a demand by the formerly communist Baltic countries that the law criminalize the denial of atrocities committed by Stalin during the Soviet era.
The legislation was the subject of bitter debate by representatives of the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden, all of which have libertarian traditions and which pressed for wording which would avoid criminalizing debates about the Holocaust and to ensure that films and plays about the Holocaust as, for example, Mel Brooks’ musical “The Producers” were not censored.
Ultimately, consensus was reached by allowing national laws to take precedence in this narrow circumstance. But, undoubtedly, the issue will linger. Anti-racism groups complain that the law had been watered down to the point of rendering it toothless. Muslim leaders have accused the European Union of applying a double standard, arguing that it protects established Christian religions and outlaws anti-Semitism while doing nothing to defend Muslims against defamation. More legislation will be debated and may be passed.
What does all this mean to American lawyers? The world is indeed becoming more connected as information and capital flow ever more freely across economic and national borders. The new interdependency of nations creates new challenges. Creation of the European Union resulted in a single currency—the Euro—which has in turn created an economic counter to the primacy of the American dollar. No longer must the world’s transactions take place in dollars; indeed, our leaders in Washington are aggressively trying to stop OPEC from pricing oil in Euros rather than dollars, because such pricing would doubtless have a damaging effect on the American economy.
It is not at all difficult to see that as economic intercourse between powerful nations increases, challenges to American ideals will occur. Being required to defend principles American lawyers take for granted, such as the First Amendment, is a sobering thought. It is more sobering, when one considers that we live in a world in which our values are not widely shared. The theoreticians of our republic—Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison—were all men of the Enlightenment. They believed in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. Those ideas were radical ideas in the eighteenth century. Sadly, they may have become even more radical ideas today, as religious fundamentalism coupled with economic power have begun to create what might be called a great darkening throughout much of the world.
In February 2006, the Board of Governors of the Bar Association adopted a statement on the value of the legal profession, which provides: “The legal profession is the institution to which society turns as the repository of legal knowledge and the history of the development of the law giving context and meaning to the letter and to the spirit of the rule of law.”
It is easy to understand what lawyers must do to defend the Constitution from overt attempts to destroy it. It is a more difficult task for our profession, as we move into a more closely connected world, to recognize just how important it is for us to honor our oath by emphasizing the importance of the values embodied by the enumerated rights in our state and federal constitutions. As our society develops ever closer economic ties with other societies, we must, as a profession, ensure that our oaths are not purchased with Euros.