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Remarks of Livia Barndollar, President
Connecticut Bar Association
Supreme Court’s Law Day Ceremony
May 1, 2009

 

Good morning,Atty. Livia Barndollar, Pres. CT Bar Assoc.

I am not an honoree, a distinguished Lincoln scholar, an Appellate Court judge nor a Supreme Court Justice of either Rhode Island or Connecticut. I am a practicing attorney and I will speak from that vantage point.

Law Day was established May 1, 1958 by Dwight D. Eisenhower as

             “A day of national dedication to the principles of government under law.”

In the following year’s official proclamation for Law Day, President Eisenhower stated:

“Free people can assure the blessings of liberty for themselves only if they recognize the necessity that the rule of law shall be supreme and that all men shall be equal before the law.”

Each year when we observe Law Day we celebrate this principle and the contributions of the women and men who work on behalf of our system of law and justice. 

This year’s theme for Law Day – A Legacy of Liberty – Celebrating Lincoln’s Bicentennial – is intended to focus on our iconic lawyer-president Lincoln and his lifetime commitment to constitutional democracy and the preservation of liberty. 

Many American presidents have been lawyers. President Barack Obama is the 44th president and the 26th lawyer-president – 60% of our presidents have been lawyers. Lincoln practiced law with renowned integrity for almost 25 years before becoming President. He tried more than 5,000 cases and argued many times before the Illinois Supreme Court and once before the U.S. Supreme Court. Less than 2 years after being admitted to the practice of law, speaking to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois he spoke about the preeminence of the rule of law, saying:

“Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap – let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; - let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars…”

On President’s Day, this year, only four days after the bicentennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, I was honored to listen to an address by the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and President of the Conference of Chief Justices, the Hon. Margaret H. Marshall, which she delivered at the ABA House of Delegates meeting. Her insights, particularly as a South African native were striking. She spoke of the South Africa of her childhood, in which the judiciary was the “handmaiden of Parliament” and when judges could not “strike down the most unjust laws”. She warned that in order for state courts to do justice, they must be “independent of outside influence, free from interference from elected branches” and funded adequately.

Late in that same afternoon, when Steven N. Zack, the ABA President-Elect nominee also spoke of the sanctity of the rule of law as the bedrock for the preservation of civil liberties, he too, identified a fair and impartial judiciary as the crucial requirement. Attorney Zack stirringly related memories about fleeing Cuba with his grandfather to the United States. His grandfather had made a life in Cuba following his emigration from a totalitarian Russia regime in 1909. When his and his family’s liberty was once again challenged, he left behind his adopted home, where he had made a life for more than 50 years, to become a refugee, once more. While his grandfather admitted to his grandson that he was “very sad”, he told him also that he was hopeful on that day in 1960. He said he “knew he would never be a refugee again because if America fell, there would be no place to go”.

Attorney Zack said that the “first moment” that they knew that their “rights were at stake” was with the “attacks on the judiciary”. He told us that the Cuban constitution was identical to that of the United States of America at that time but that the “constitutions are words and only words” where the rule of law is not honored.

Justice Marshall and Attorney Zack, who both personally experienced societies in which the rule of law did not reign, reminded the 500+ delegates before them that the rule of law is what sustains a free nation. And that what sustains the rule of law is a fair and impartial judiciary.

In our current faltering economy, the rule of law is being severely challenged. Inadequate funding of our Judiciary is an attack on our system of justice. Inadequate funding of the Judicial Branch, including the legal aid system, funded in part through the budget of the Branch, will result in the delay of justice, limitation of access to justice, and potentially the failure of an independent co-equal Judicial Branch in this State. The preservation of individual liberties is dependent upon access to a viable judicial system.

Too, the crisis of civic education contributes to the erosion of the rule of law. That crisis is well documented. In a 2007 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, it was reported that:

Seventy-four percent of Americans said that they knew at least one of the three branches of government. When asked to name them, only 36% correctly named all three. Fifteen percent of Americans knew that John Roberts is the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while 66% could name a judge on American Idol. Eighty-seven percent of Americans believe, to a great or moderate extent, that it is the state legislators’ responsibility to interpret state laws and constitutions.

As a result of this failure of knowledge, many American citizens do not understand that the separation of powers is fundamental to the survival of the rule of law.

In order for the rule of law to survive in society, ­even a democratic society, we must recognize and protect its centrality and preserve its strength. And, for the rule of law to survive in society, especially in a democratic society, it must be preserved when challenges to it are the greatest. On Law Day we must contemplate and appreciate the importance of the rule of law in all of our lives and how poor the quality of life is without it.

So what we can do to preserve the rule of law?

We must advocate for proper funding of the judiciary and of equal access to justice for the poor. We must defend the judiciary from systemic attacks on its proper functions- the same state courts, which retired Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has identified as the “backbone of our system of justice”.

We must resist and advocate against the politicization of the judicial process, speaking out to defend judges and the court system from unfair assaults, whether by individuals, the press or other sources, political or private interest in nature, that undermine the independence of the judicial system.

As citizens we must obey laws. Attorneys must counsel clients to obey court orders, including voluntary agreements entered as court orders. We must respect and defend the freedoms of our neighbors, even when we don’t agree with them. As Clarence Darrow once said:

“You can only protect your liberties in the world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”

We must educate and advocate the education of our children, our neighbors, our legislators, our citizens, and our leaders as to what our system of the rule of law is and why it is important to the very essence of our lives and liberty in this State and in our United States of America.

Abraham Lincoln’s words at a time of the greatest of crisis in our nation, are relevant today too: He said: America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

Having recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of that great lawyer - some say the greatest American lawyer – and celebrating him and the rights guaranteed to us under the Declaration of Independence that he held so dear, on this Law Day we must each – regardless of age or avocation - embrace our responsibility to preserve the rule of law on which our very liberty depends.     

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