Law Day Lessons: Civility, collaboration remain the answer to a better society
As the legal community prepares to celebrate Law Day on May 1, we should look back on why this day exists.
Law Day dates to the days of the Cold War, more than 60 years ago. In 1957, ABA President Charles S. Rhyne watched reports of Russia’s May Day celebration in Moscow’s Red Square, with its displays of missiles, weapons and troops. He believed the United States was different. Sure, we had a powerful military, but what made America great was its commitment to the rule of law.
To counter May Day, Rhyne asked President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 to issue the first Law Day proclamation and to set aside a national day to celebrate the rule of law, highlighting how the legal process contributes to the freedoms Americans hold dear.
Today, as we struggle as a nation that often seems divided, Law Day is even more important. This year’s theme, “Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration,” offers us an opportunity to rebuild trust in our institutions, respect for one another and a willingness to collaborate.
Our democratic system has been put to the test once again. Divisions in society are aggravated by incivility in public discourse and insufficient understanding about the Constitution and the way American government works. This is not the first time in American history that society has been ruptured, and unfortunately it probably will not be the last.
Understanding our history is critical to the efforts to mend our country. Promoting civics education is foundational to citizens’ understanding of democracy. It helps people put into context what is happening now and gives them perspective and hope. We have had moments like this before, and we persevered. We have the tools to make this right.
The more you know
Having knowledge of civics helps us to both be more civil and to collaborate better. An informed electorate that can communicate with each other and disagree but not be disagreeable can help us find solutions.
The American Bar Association has the reach and resources to help educate and advocate for civics education, a more civil public debate and bettercollaboration. We have created the ABA Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration Commission, which is led by newly confirmed federal judge Adrienne Nelson of Oregon and ABA stalwart Bill Weisenberg of Ohio.
The commission and its website (ambar.org/cornerstones) has links to resources and articles to help you develop plans in your communities to promote civility and collaboration. It also has a conversation guide to help you engage in civil conversations on difficult topics. We already have held programs at the University of Miami and in New Orleans at the ABA Midyear Meeting. We are working to collaborate with the Listen First Project’s National Week of Conversation in April, and with the World Justice Project, the National Conference of Bar Presidents as well as school and corporate partners.
The fifth annual ABA Survey of Civic Literacy will be released in recognition of Law Day on April 27 and will include opinion questions on civility and collaboration. In addition, scheduling is underway to include a cornerstones panel at the World Jurist Association World Law Congress in New York in July and at our annual meeting in Denver in August.
The work of the Cornerstones Commission is resonating. It received a $200,000 grant from the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation to help its mission focusing on funding pilot projects at local bar associations.
Being civil is nothing new. Even amid the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address talked of our adversaries, saying: “Let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness.”
As lawyers, we know how to collaborate, overcome differences and resolve disputes. On this Law Day, we call on members of the legal profession to lead the way in promoting civics, civility and collaboration—the cornerstones of our democracy.
This story was originally published in the April-May 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Law Day Lessons: Civility, collaboration remain the answer to a better society.”