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Baxter-Ward Fellow Catherine Carroll and the Rule of Law

Every year, the William & Mary Government Department invites a distinguished alum to be the Baxter-Ward Fellow. The fellowship, named after former Government professors Alan J. Ward and Donald J. Baxter, includes giving a public talk and visiting with current William & Mary Government students and professors.

This year’s Baxter-Ward fellow is ’98 Government Department graduate Catherine Carroll, who is partner-in-charge of the Washington, D.C. office of WilmerHale, one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the country. She has argued cases in front of the United States Supreme Court and other federal appellate courts. Heavily involved with the firm’s pro bono work, Carroll is particularly interested in constitutional law and capital habeas procedure.

At her public talk to students entitled Courts, Lawyers, and the Rule of Law in a Polarized Era, Carroll questioned what the rule of law in the United States means to citizens and lawmakers. She emphasized that the idea of the rule of law can be interpreted in many ways, but that it is ultimately a mechanism for enforcing checks and balances on different branches of government. Additionally, the enforcement of the rule of law often falls to courts and lawyers. As an example, she raised the question of how courts should handle the federalism issues raised by sanctuary cities. Things get especially complicated in these polarized and politicized times. “What is the appropriate remedy for the court to render?” she asked. “Courts are a little ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’” 

Carroll also spoke about the sense that the rule of law in the United States is under threat and that every citizen’s commitment to the rule of law is weakened. “The rule of law has always been under attack,” she said. Citizens have a moral obligation to object to unjust laws, and there have been many objections in our country’s history. “Civil disobedience is the rule of law,” she said. It is possible – and perhaps even morally obligatory – to object to the unjust laws we face while honoring the idea of the rule of law.

Carroll gave three ways for lawyers to foster a national sense of the rule of law: provision of pro bono legal services, counseling clients to follow the rule of law, and being intentional in the way they advocate, talk about, and teach the law. In these times, it’s especially vital that our national identity includes a shared sense of the rule of law. She reminded students, “It’s easy to take for granted that the law shapes everything you do.”