The World Justice Project: A Sustained Commitment To The Rule Of Law

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 01:00
William H. Neukom

Editor: When we last spoke, at the beginning of your term as ABA President, you had identified the rule of law as one of the principal themes of your term of office, specifically the ABA's World Justice Project. Please tell us about the origin of this initiative.

Neukom: The World Justice Project is a multinational, multidisciplinary initiative to strengthen the rule of law worldwide. It does so by building a broad and diverse global constituency to advance the rule of law as a foundation for successful communities. The initiative is based on four universal principles, which together constitute a working definition of the rule of law: that governments are accountable under the law; that laws are clear, publicized, equitable and protect fundamental rights, including the security of the person and of property; that the process by which laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient; and that the laws are upheld, and access to justice is provided, by competent, independent and ethical law enforcement officials, attorneys and judges who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

I believe that where a rule of law framework exists - with government accountability, just laws, fair processes and sufficient resources to sustain the system - the ability to provide people with at least some protection against the dark side of human nature also exists. In the absence of such a framework, power alone dictates the course of human existence, with terrible consequences for a great many people if history is any guide.

Let me add that while the World Justice Project began its life as an initiative of the ABA, the intention from the beginning has been to create a stand-alone entity. That, I think, is necessary for this project to reach its full potential as a multinational and multidisciplinary undertaking - neither an American creation nor the result of the efforts of lawyers alone. The rule of law is not the exclusive domain of legal professionals. In order to address the needs of an increasingly complex, and increasingly globalized, society, the rule of law must draw upon resources from across the entire spectrum of human aspiration, and that means calling upon business and labor, engineering, technology, medicine, the arts, education, religion, and so on, in addition to the legal profession. To that end, the World Justice Project will have a governing board that, while reflecting something of its origins as an initiative of the ABA, consists of people from a wide array of backgrounds, nationalities, disciplines and professions. The governing board will be drawn from 16 different disciplines and 80 countries.

To illustrate why this diversity - in background, profession and nationality - is so essential to this initiative, let me point to the contribution just one discipline - that of civil engineering - makes to our efforts. China has just experienced a terrible earthquake, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives through the collapse of substandard public buildings. In many parts of the world, corruption in public works design and construction is the prevailing standard, and that is why school buildings, hospitals and low-income housing are the first to suffer when an earthquake strikes. Lawyers certainly understand how corruption works, but it is engineers who have their fingers on the pulse of this particular form of corruption. As a profession they are devoted to the idea that justice matters, and that is why they constitute such an important element on the governing board of the World Justice Project.

Editor: The World Justice Project has been the centerpiece of your ABA presidency. Why?

Neukom: My commitment to the World Justice Project is a kind of culmination of experiences in private practice, at Microsoft - where I spent almost 25 years as lead lawyer - and with the bar, including local and state bar associations and, of course, the ABA. Over all this time I became increasingly aware of how much injustice there is - in our country as well as abroad - and how it is possible to do something to address injustice. I came up with the concept of communities of opportunity. As a general matter, judges and lawyers have not been very good at dealing with problems such as judicial selection or retention, and in fact these are not problems that confront our profession alone. They are problems that pose a challenge for our entire society. The communities in which we live consist of people who are stakeholders in our system of justice, and the concept of communities of opportunity is meant to describe an open door process that brings together a variety of perspectives and resources - the multidisciplinary and multinational themes that define the initiative - to address the problems we face. As I say, these are not just problems for judges and lawyers. They are problems for all of us, and it is going to take people from all walks of life working together to resolve them in an effective, sustained manner.

Let me attempt to put this into more concrete terms. Every city in our country is disadvantaged by poverty. While everyone understands that there are root causes of poverty, no community is paying sufficient attention to the problem of poverty because other needs clamor for attention and too often prevent the poverty issue from being adequately aired. To the extent that the legal problems of poor people are heard in the courts, however, society as a whole has an opportunity to see this issue at first hand and, hopefully, consider ways in which it might be addressed. Access to justice for the poor, in criminal matters, to be sure, but also legal services in certain types of civil cases for those otherwise incapable of retaining a lawyer, are ways in which society can address poverty and, over time, reduce that poverty.

When people say to me that legal services for the poor is a huge legal issue, I respond by saying it is a huge community issue. Our communities are suffering from poverty, and even if as an individual I am not, I am a member of the community. Access to education, access to heathcare, job opportunities - in addition to access to a fair and impartial system of justice - all of these things contribute to the elimination of poverty and the creation of a society in which we all wish to live.

Editor: For the profession, the importance of these principles is self-evident. How do you convey that importance to someone who is not a lawyer or, indeed, to someone who has not lived in a society governed by the rule of law?

Neukom: Rather than start with a broad discussion of the principles comprising the rule of law, you start with something very basic. Property rights and sustenance issues, and the connections here, are pretty basic. The economic value of a small plot of private land is something that is now well understood in China, and from that understanding comes a recognition of the value of real property rights to both the individual and his family and to society as a whole. In China a discussion is underway on lengthening the period of time that an individual can own land, and if this leads to ownership extending beyond the current 20 or 25 years quite literally tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people are going to be incentivized to invest in their property because there is a chance it will stay in the family for another generation. That investment - in irrigation, fertilizers, equipment and tools - translates to higher productivity, which benefits society as a whole as well as the individual farmer and his family.

In India, owning a small plot of land and choosing to grow flowers or some other high cash crop instead of vegetables may enable a poor woman to generate sufficient funds to send her children to college. They, in turn, will benefit society as productive citizens to a much greater extent than had they remained on the land. This process is well understood in India, which is why so much attention is paid to infrastructure projects which, for example, get water to people in the country's agricultural regions.

The rule of law is one of the most elevated concepts that mankind has developed, but it is concerned, in some very fundamental ways, with the most basic issues of human existence: food and shelter, security, and the protection of the rights of people who, for whatever reason, are unable to protect themselves.

Editor: Assuming you are able to convince a government to enact laws that reflect the rule of law, how do you get them to enforce such laws?

Neukom: That is an excellent question and one to which we have given considerable attention. The basic argument to be made to a government is one of self-interest. First we point to the abundance of IQ spread out across the human community. No country or region of the world has a monopoly on IQ. Then we point to the fact that people tend to do what they perceive to be in their best interests. They know that they must have a worthwhile return on their efforts, and that if they are assured of doing so they will take the entrepreneurial risks to create, say, useful technology. They will not take such risks if the culture of their particular environment is to appropriate someone else's technology - and the pirating of intellectual property continues to be a plague in some countries - rather than develop their own. They have no incentive to do so. But , if it is the policy of their government to have the right statutes on the books and to vigorously enforce those statutes fairly and objectively - that is, to take steps to protect the IP of foreign enterprises carrying on their activities within that government's jurisdiction as well as the IP of domestic companies - the incentive to develop useful technology is born. The development of IP and technology is but one area of economic endeavor - albeit an important one - but the underlying concept is applicable across the entire spectrum of economic effort. People who are happy in their livelihoods tend to make a positive contribution to the economy, and if there are a sufficient number of them they constitute the foundation of a strong economy. Such people do not, as a general matter, harbor hostility towards government. For their part, governments that wish to stay in power have every incentive to do what is necessary to support the happiness and prosperity of their people and the ongoing prosperity of their economy.