By: Jonathan Wroblewski
Lecturer on Law Jonathan Wroblewski recaps the 2019 Semester in Washington Program for his students.
The 2019 edition of the Harvard Law School Semester in Washington Program has now ended. The semester began with the longest government shutdown in U.S. history; and it ended with a report detailing extensive foreign interference with our presidential election, and Democrats debating whether to begin impeachment proceedings against the President. In days gone by, the events of the last two weeks would be considered historic by all, and we’d be glued to our TVs watching hearings and wondering what would come next. But in the age of daily presidential tweet storms, 24-7 cable news rants, and leadership across the city not quite sure how to deal with it all, Congress is completing a two-week recess and it all seems a bit too routine and somehow not at all shocking.
But what was indeed particularly noteworthy for us this semester — and something which was not in any way routine — were the actions we witnessed by some very prominent government lawyers. From the beginning, the Trump presidency has brought with it many ethical challenges for the government lawyer. Who do we work for? What does the “rule of law” really mean? How do we advise our political leaders and stay faithful to our larger obligations? When should we strive to get to “yes,” and when do we simply need to say, “no.” But this was the year when we saw these challenges being faced head-on and being met (at least partially) at the highest levels. This was the semester where we were brought inside the White House by the Mueller report and saw the White House Counsel refuse a presidential order to obstruct justice. This was the semester where we saw Department of Homeland Security lawyers refuse to implement illegal policies around immigration for political purposes. And this was the semester where we saw lawyers in the Special Counsel’s office both vigorously investigate allegations of wrongdoing by the President and his associates, but also show restraint (right or wrong) in not bringing charges where they were not warranted under the law. The lawyers have stepped up; and it seems to me that the rule of law is holding.
In these last three months, we have both been following it all and trying to model and learn from the great — and not so great — government policy lawyers and professionals. We’ve done so by exploring the headlines, but also by exploring issues arising from our placements and our work in government, from our own interests, and from the interests of our classmates. We read about leadership and how each of us needs to grapple with what we believe in, if we are to effectively lead others. We read about the dynamics of bureaucracy and thought about how it applied to our placements and other government institutions. We learned from one another, from government lawyers and policy makers in our placements, and from leaders in government, and the not-for-profit world. We met some fascinating people, including Chiraag Bains and his colleagues at Demos, Retired General David Petraeus, former FBI General Counsel Jim Baker, and head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta. We heard Justice Sotomayor reflect on her life and career. And we heard from a dozen or so SiW alumni who shared what they have been doing since the Program and also a nugget or two of wisdom.
As always, what was most gratifying for me was the chance to get to know each of you a bit and to create a small community of learning here in DC. I enjoyed learning from you and seeing your energy and passion for justice and for our country over the past three months. I hope I helped channel that energy and passion and that you will now take your places as leaders who will contribute in real and measurable ways to improving our country and our world. In whatever you do next and throughout your career, there will be opportunities for you to serve. I am grateful that I got to spend the last three months with all of you. As I said tonight at our end-of-semester dinner, you are the antidote to cynicism and distress. You keep me grounded and balanced. Thank you.