Integrity in the practice of law: some thoughts

Is it really that big of a deal? You could be tempted to ask that question in response to the suspension of Denise Harstfied, a District Judge here in Forsyth County. An investigation found that she “took care of” traffic tickets for some eighty of her friends, fellow church members, and students she taught here at Wake Forest University School of Law. The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission has recommended that she be suspended, although it made no recommendation as to the duration of the suspension. It’s possible, of course, that the State Supreme Court could censure or even remove her from the bench.

I don’t know Judge Hartsfield and I have no knowledge of her professional reputation. She may be an able judge. However, the thing about integrity is that once it’s lost, it’s hard to regain. To be person of integrity, you have to do the right thing all the time. Make a mistake once, cross the line a single time, and you integrity is gone especially when it comes out in the print media.

I’m sure that Judge Hartsfield probably felt like she was being a good samaritan for friends  and students–helping them out while they were in a jam. What’s the harm? The harm is that once something like this comes to fore, she will be forever known as a judge whose integrity is questionable. There will always be some doubt as to whether her rulings are based on some factor outside of the facts of the case at hand. After all, excusing a ticket for friends (one presumes most of whom are similarly situated in terms of their social-economic status) conveys all the wrong messages about equality in the eyes of the law.

Modern legal education has attempted to teach professional responsibility in terms of a code of ethics–to regulate the behavior of lawyers and judges in the conduct of their work as officers of the court. That’s great, but it isn’t enough. Since legal education largely brackets questions of ultimate moral concern, the lawyer find himself (at least in the context of the profession) lost in a moral vacuum where something is wrong only because it violates a rule or regulation.

It’s critical for Christian law students to be exposed to a moral compass greater than the body of professional ethics. Individual lawyers need to be formed first as Christians and then as officers of the court, people who (under God) carry out their work with integrity and for the common good and to the glory of God.

Here are some good places to start: