Held to a Higher Standard: Ethical Considerations for Public Lawyers

By Brett Kandt, Executive Director

Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons is based on the true story of Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England who was executed for refusing to affirm the Act of Supremacy which would make King Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England. Confronted by men who subvert the law for their own benefit, Sir Thomas is willing to die rather than compromise his belief that no one is above the law and everyone is equal before the law. This principle is underscored in an exchange in act 1, scene 7:

Margaret: Father, that man’s bad.

More: There is no law against that.

Roper: There is! God’s law!

More: Then let God arrest him.

 Roper: Sophistication upon sophistication!

More: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal – not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal.

 Roper: Then you set man’s law above God’s!

More: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact – I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester. I doubt there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God . . .

Alice: While you talk he’s gone!

More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!

More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man's laws, not God's – and if you cut them down – and you're just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.[1]

The story of More’s unwavering conviction that only the rule of law can protect man from the tyranny of others is a powerful one, and in many ways it illuminates the ethical considerations that must guide the public lawyer serving as either a criminal prosecutor or an attorney in government civil practice. This article focuses on those ethical duties that are unique to the public lawyer, since they are essential to upholding the responsibility that comes with representing the sovereign.