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Lawyer as a Public Citizen, and the World Justice Project

December 05, 2022
World globe, local downtown legal buildings

A lawyer is a “public citizen” with a responsibility for the quality of justice and the rule of law, both locally and internally. Howard Kenison highlights the important work environmental lawyers are providing — in legal knowledge and experience — to the World Justice Project in the ABA’s Natural Resources & Environment Fall 2022 issue. 

By Howard Kenison, Past Chair of the ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER), and attorney at Jones & Keller in Denver, Colorado

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A lawyer is a “public citizen” with obligations to the rule of law. The Preamble to the Model Rules states that “A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” According to the Preamble, “[a]s a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law . . . [and] cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients . . . .”

It is understandable that, during the day-to-day practice of law representing clients, we might not see the means to take up our critical role as public citizens. Nonetheless, I believe we must do so. I know my ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) colleagues also share that belief. Active leadership in SEER evinces, at minimum, a gut-level acknowledgement of our responsibility for the quality of justice and the rule of law. We each must find the means to express our role as public citizens. Members of SEER have done so through the World Justice Project (WJP).

In 2007, an Environmental  issues Working Group, tasked by ABA leadership with identifying fundamental principles underlying the rule of law related to environmental issues, presented a White Paper to the leadership of the ABA in New York City. Shortly thereafter, along with other SEER members, I began my participation in the WJP, which was founded as a presidential initiative of the ABA.

The WJP is “an independent, multidisciplinary organization working to create knowledge, build awareness, and stimulate action to advance the rule of law worldwide.” The WJP asserts that the “effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices large and small.” For example, when pollution laws are ignored and inspectors are bribed, the environment suffers.

Members of SEER have sought to improve the quality of justice in environmental matters—as public citizens—by working with the WJP. SEER has provided environmental legal knowledge and experience for the WJP’s major international event, the World Justice Forum (WJF).

SEER members have attended all World Justice Forums. Recently, the WJP held its seventh WJF in The Hague, Netherlands. WJP estimated that the event was attended by 1,000 people from around the world.

The recent WJF focused on topics that SEER has been on the forefront of promoting, including SEER-led Resolutions in the House of Delegates concerning environmental justice, sustainable development, and climate change.

SEER’s WJF VII team, led by Past Chairs Lee Dehihns and Claudia Rast, planned a panel session focused on SEER’s resolutions, titled “The Law’s Role in Protecting the Most Vulnerable Populations from Climate Change.” The panel was described as follows:

Those most harmed by the impacts of climate change are vulnerable populations who are the least responsible and, although the most deserving, frequently lack the legal protections or tools to address their harms. As a result, climate change impacts are emerging as growing human rights and rule of law issues.

The WJP’s primary efforts revolve around its highly regarded Rule of Law Index, which “offers a detailed and comprehensive picture of the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law.” SEER worked with the WJP to create a similar index focused on environmental issues. The outcome was the report Environmental Governance Indicators for Latin America and the Caribbean (EGI). The EGI represents the first-ever effort to address how environmental governance functions in practice.

While SEER’s work with WJP may seem removed from our members’ day-to-day practice of law, as “public citizens” with a  special responsibility for the quality of justice,” it is my strong belief that we must do so in whatever area—local, state, national or international—works best for each of us. I encourage you to join me in that effort.

Mr. Kenison is a shareholder at Jones & Keller, P.C., in Denver, Colorado and Past Chair of SEER. He may be reached at