Law Matters: Law Day Celebrates Our Enduring Values

24 April 2006

Law Matters: Law Day Celebrates Our Enduring Values

The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff make up his April 2006 Law Matters column.

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 system.

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 republic.

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 government.

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.  

Attacks on 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.

This 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.