Justice Edwin Cameron of the Constitutional Court of South Africa addresses the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting Jan. 3 in New Orleans. Photo: Association of American Law Schools

NEW ORLEANS — The future of the United States will be molded by the students now sitting in law classrooms, and the legal academy has a responsibility to instill in them faith in the law and its ability to fight injustice and protect the most vulnerable.

Justice Edwin Cameron of South Africa’s high court delivered that message to attendees of the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting on Thursday in New Orleans during an address in which he highlighted the role of lawyers in dismantling the country’s longstanding apartheid system, in the creation of the country’s constitution 25 years ago, in the fight to bring affordable AIDS drugs to the country, and in the judiciary’s work to hold elected officials accountable for malfeasance.

“You carry in your classroom and seminars the future of the country,” Cameron said, noting that it’s a time when many people fear that the rule of law is under assault in the United States.

Cameron’s remarks were both a call to arms for lawyers and the legal academy to push against injustice, and a reminder of the power and possibility that lies in the law. Nelson Mandela never lost faith in the law, even after being sentenced to life in prison, Cameron noted.

Cameron spoke about his personal journey from anti-apartheid lawyer to openly gay man with HIV/AIDS, who was elevated to the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 2009. After decades in practice and on the bench, Cameron said he remains both perplexed and awed by the power of the law, which remains a mechanism through which to realize our “better aspirations.”

He also offered a strong rebuke against “crooked judges” and judges entrenched in partisan politics who bring ideological commitments to the bench. Instead, judges must retain a “readiness to be persuaded by arguments.”

Lastly, Cameron urged attendees not to lose faith in the law as a “means to secure human dignity” and to continue fighting. Professors in particular have a responsibility to instill that reverence and conviction in their students, who will go on to shape the law and the future of the United States, he said.