“Lawyers … occupy a place of ambivalence in public life. Their work makes them indispensable to many. What they do at work makes them loathed by many others. We are a challenged species.” To Michael Steele, this sentiment encapsulates the upsides and downsides of being an attorney. Steele, who made history as the first African American to be elected to statewide office in the state of Maryland and as the first African American chair of the Republican National Committee, was a keynote speaker at MSBA’s 2023 Legal Summit in Ocean City.

Steele believes that all attorneys, regardless of their practice area, have an obligation to defend our civil liberties, ensure the freedoms granted by the Constitution, protect our rights, and enforce the rule of law. He noted this is especially important when a law appears on its face ready to deprive citizens of those same rights, and stressed this is why an independent judiciary system is crucial. “Our nation was founded on the ideals of liberty and justice. And to this point, James Madison once noted, there can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person.”

The legislative and executive branches at the state and the federal levels must also work to ensure judicial independence, Steele contends, in part by creating a process that allows for the selection of judges based on qualifications instead of past political performance or partisanship, allowing for well qualified judiciaries to make independent, well thought out judicially sound decisions, and to ensuring fairness, impartiality, and dedication to the rule of law.

To Steele, attorneys are at the crux of this process, as demonstrated in the months following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol following the 2020 presidential election. He noted, “[i]n each of these historic moments, again, lawyers, our legal system have been called upon indeed required to put no man, including a president, above the rule of law and the constitution.”

This presents a difficult but critical task, namely “that our legal system . . . find the right balance between individual freedom and accountability, privacy and security, justice and equity, while at the same time safeguarding us from an unnecessarily intrusive government or the authoritarian tendencies of politicians.” Our goal as attorneys, Steele explained, is to argue for and zealously maintain that balance, not only for the current generation, but for future generations to come as well.

Steele believes that a strong ethical compass is the key to both protecting the rule of law and achieving success as an attorney, noting “[h]ow you conduct your life and assert the principles that guide your actions will speak volumes about you as a person. How you practice the law, uphold the constitution and represent your clients, will speak volumes about you as a lawyer.”

Moving on to the topic of the political climate in America, Steele opined that, “since our founding, the story of America largely has been about what we aspire to be.” He thinks that the unmet expectations of countless Americans, fueled by the behavior of elected officials, along with both parties’ lack of engagement have defined and distorted our current political landscape to the point that we no longer recognize each other or the face of our country. Steele stated that unprincipled politicians have tried to subvert the power of the people, and we must all be committed to protecting the Constitution and the rule of law, in order to realize the goal of forming a more perfect union as our founders intended.

Steele clarified his stance on January 6th, stating that it was not political discourse but was an insurrection against the government. He still believes, though, that the power rests with the people, and “[i]t does matter that we stay connected, not just to the work that we do as lawyers, but the work we must do as citizens.” He ended his speech by reiterating that the onus of preserving our democracy rests on all of us.

Steele then fielded questions from the audience. When asked who he would vote for in the next election, Steele explained that while he is a Republican, he would not vote if Trump is the nominee of the Republican party. He shared that he asked a number of people in the Republican party whether they were prepared to lose the primary to win the general election, stating politicians need to be honest with themselves about whether voters like them and trust them enough to give them the job. He noted Republicans must deal with fallout from the Dobbs decision as well, as it prompted many Republican and conservative women to vote against the GOP due to concerns over women’s health.

Regardless of his concerns about the current status of the Republican party, Steele does not agree with Democrats on a number of policy issues. He also thinks their focus on filibusters was misplaced, the student loan issue was not thought out, and their approach to Afghanistan was “a debacle.” Still, he is less interested in figuring out at this point whether he disagrees with someone over policy. Instead, he posted the question, “do you think the country’s important enough to have a discussion about who we are and what we should be doing as a nation?”

In response to a question about the role attorneys play in getting the country back on track regarding the values of democracy, Steele urged them to “use the knowledge and the wisdom you have from the learning that you’ve gained and the experience that you’ve gained in the practice of law, the study of law to inform the general population about things they don’t know” including issues like how the president is elected. He also discussed gerrymandering and noted he supports a national popular vote for the election of the presidency.