Yesterday’s attack on the Capitol while Congress and the Vice President were gathered to certify the vote of the electors was an assault on our democracy. The rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power are central to our identities not only as Americans, but as students and practitioners of the law. Yesterday’s events did violence to those identities and foundational principles as they did literal violence to our Capitol.
For the past 20 years, it has been my privilege to introduce the United States Constitution to first-year law students. I tell my students that though the Constitution is not a perfect document and though we have longstanding disputes about its meaning, one promise it embodies is that we will govern ourselves through the rule of law rather than by the exercise of violence. Last night, I reread the Constitution, including Article II and the 12th Amendment, which both state, “The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.” Congress was carrying out this constitutionally mandated duty when it was mobbed by assailants whose goal was to impede it.
I tell my students that the Constitution, and the law writ large, are the keys to the kingdom in a constitutional democracy. To paraphrase President Ryan’s recent remarks, being a constitutional democracy is “something we do, not just something we are.” Events like this force us to recall and recommit ourselves to the Constitution and the rule of law that it embodies. Such events also invite us to recommit to our shared values as a profession, one of which is that the abiding purpose of the law is to resolve conflicts through reasoned argument and not brute force and violence.
A sustained effort will be necessary to repair the damage to our democratic institutions that has culminated in this moment. That effort began, haltingly and partially, in the small hours of this morning, when Congress and the Vice President completed their constitutional tasks. I fervently hope that the final stages of the presidential transition over the next few weeks are peaceful ones. Even if they are, so much work remains to be done—to take stock of the fragility of our institutions; to better understand the relationship between institutions, law, and norms; and to rebuild our capacity for peaceful assembly and protest as well as reasoned debate.
In other words, the world needs you now more than ever. The many critical questions that yesterday’s events have highlighted are questions that you are not only prepared but duty-bound to answer by virtue of your legal education and the public trust it confers on you. Our shared commitment to the law both brings us together and makes us an integral part of securing the future of our nation. I invite you to join me in rereading the Constitution, in recommitting to its promise, and in taking up the mantle of its defense and sustenance.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.