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Many scholars, policymakers, advocacy groups, members of the media, and citizens-at-large are lamenting the perceived decrease in adherence to norms and ethics by certain government officials over the past few years. Informal mechanisms—whether they be norms, ethics, customs, or a “gentleman’s word”—have long been relied upon to ensure certain standards of behavior within all aspects of society. The American government is no exception. From America’s founding, the rule of law created the backstop for its governmental processes, but the virtue of its leaders remained a constant component of its success. To be fair, the country has seen more than its fair share of dark times; times of great discord, dispute, and division. And when these dark times occur, the questions confronting America are why have her leaders failed her and what should be done in response?

This Article seeks to respond, at least in part, to these two questions. It begins by acknowledging that America is in the midst of a crisis of leadership as a result of a failure by government officials to adhere to basic norms and accepted ethical standards. The Article argues that the country’s current predicament is attributable, at least in part, to the failure of stigma to rein in—or serve as a check—on government officials’ behavior. The (i) rise of social media (ii) paired with an increasingly politically polarized environment has crippled the power of social norms to serve as an effective mechanism for encouraging certain types of behavior in government officials. As a result, this Article argues that it is necessary to look for other mechanisms that can be used to fill the gaps left by the failure of social norms to rein in officials’ behavior. This Article discusses three: (i) the adoption of formal legal interventions to shore up and restore certain expectations of acceptable behavior for government officials, (ii) a renewed commitment to the notion that the proper role of the lawyer is that of a professional whose role is to pursue the public good, and (iii) the role of private pressure to facilitate certain expectations of acceptable conduct. When adherence to norms and appeals to ethics fail, it suggests it may be time for law, lawyers, and the public to intervene.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Law and ethics, Political ethics, Legal ethics, Social norms