Law Matters: Law Day Celebrates Our
Content date: 04/24/2006
The following reflections of Missouri Chief
Justice Michael A. Wolff make up his April 2006 Law
Law Day started as a competitive event during the Cold War. In
1958, President Dwight Eisenhower first proclaimed May 1 as Law Day – the date
was chosen to contrast our system that embodies the rule of law with that of the
Soviet bloc countries that celebrated "May Day" with militaristic parades and
speeches glorifying the achievements of the Communist
What a difference a generation makes. The
American governmental system – and the rule of law that we proudly exhibit to
the world – faces no external threat. There are threats to our system, but they
come from within.
"If destruction be our lot, we
must ourselves be its author and finisher," Abraham Lincoln said in an 1838
speech in Springfield, Illinois. To be specific, the young Lincoln said: "I mean
the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing
disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober
judgment of Courts …."
Today, 168 years later, we
similarly should be concerned with untoward attacks on "activist judges,"
attacks that undermine the fundamental principles of separation of powers and
the system of checks and balances that are central to our democratic
Courts are easy targets. Courts handle
hundreds of thousands of cases each year in Missouri, and across the country
there are millions of cases each year. The everyday business of the courts –
deciding cases involving businesses, families and criminal punishments – assures
us that there is always some fodder for the disgruntled. The law of averages
requires that half the people in these cases lose, and sometimes the winners may
not believe they have won enough.
As products of
human institutions, not all court decisions are correct, however soberly those
judgments are reached. Appeals are available to help ensure that legal
principles are applied properly. The court system, while not perfect, has proved
remarkably self-correcting over time.
In the American
model of democracy, courts are the third branch of government – the least
dangerous branch, as Alexander Hamilton observed: courts possess neither the
power of the sword, nor the purse, but only judgment.
When that judgment runs afoul of the public mood, courts are attacked by
those who want them to be subservient to the legislative and executive branches
of government, which are supposedly the repositories of the public will.
Missouri judges, however, are likewise answerable to voters through elections
and retention votes.
The challenge for those who
serve as judges in Missouri's courts is to remain accountable first and foremost
to the law. The popular will is not always served, but the rights of individuals
to justice and liberty are.
Our values – preservation
of the rule of law and the liberty that it ensures – cannot be stated too
strongly. These values include the principle that courts should be fair,
impartial and free of political influence, and that access to justice for all in
our society should be assured. To uphold the law, courts must be strong and
co-equal – not subservient – to the other branches of
Those who serve in the courts and in the
legal profession are reminded often of the challenge of remaining committed to
these values. There is a natural tendency of those in power to want their power
to go unchecked. The values we enforce are permanent, and the challenges to our
finely balanced system are perpetual.
this system are occasionally distracting, and they have been with us throughout
our history. They seem prevalent because talk radio and cable television
channels build audiences by pushing the public's anger buttons. Perspective must
be maintained, however. That courts have preserved their essential role in our
system of checks and balances is a tribute not just to those who have served in
the American justice system. It also is a tribute to the broad consensus of the
American people that these values that the courts uphold are worthy of support
even when individual decisions seem not to be.
underlying consensus of the American people is the foundation of the rule of law
and a principal reason our republic endures. The Cold War is over, but Law Day
retains its competitive context. The contending forces within the United States
may be just as important as the competition of ideas that the rule of law faces
in the rest of the world.