The Importance of Law Day: As lawyers, let's share our passion for constitutional democracy
In 1957, during the Cold War, American Bar Association President Charles S. Rhyne had an idea. It came to him as he watched reports of the Soviet Union’s annual May Day celebration in Moscow’s Red Square, with massive displays of military might. Rhyne, a onetime counsel to President Dwight Eisenhower, suggested that what made America truly great was its fidelity to the rule of law as opposed to the rule of force.
A presidential proclamation was issued, declaring May 1 Law Day. It was codified by Congress in April 1961. Every president since Eisenhower has signed a Law Day Proclamation.
Eisenhower’s proclamation, issued May 1, 1958, declared that “guaranteed fundamental rights of individuals under the law is the heart and sinew of our Nation.” Rhyne described the rule of law as “the cement that holds our free society together.”
In the six decades since, the ABA has mobilized lawyers for Law Day to engage their communities around timely and timeless themes about America’s constitutional system. The theme of Law Day 2017 honors the principle of individual rights and the law. “The 14th Amendment: Transforming American Democracy” will explore the critical role this constitutional amendment has played in securing and protecting so many of the rights we enjoy today.
Although it is among the most litigated of the Constitution’s provisions, the public is largely unfamiliar with it. The 14th Amendment was one of three post-Civil War Reconstruction amendments. Passed by Congress on June 13, 1866, and ratified by the states on July 9, 1868, it was primarily intended to establish equal civil rights for former slaves.
But the amendment shifted how the Constitution was applied. Thanks to the 14th Amendment, individual protections under the Bill of Rights were not only enforceable against the federal government but also against individual states.
Throughout the 20th century, the 14th Amendment became the legal basis for major Supreme Court decisions, from desegregating schools (Brown v. Board of Education) to ensuring counsel for criminal defendants (Gideon v. Wainwright).
“The reason we have the 14th Amendment,” said former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, “is to provide the courts with the opportunity to override the will of the people when the will of the people discriminates against a segment of our society.”
This year, we’re asking lawyers to educate the public about the 14th Amendment’s vital importance to our democracy. We’re asking you to join judges and teachers across the country to engage students, elected officials, and community leaders in Law Day discussions of the amendment’s significance.
Another goal is to have every governor issue a Law Day proclamation, something that will require your help and that of state bars. The ABA has a model Law Day proclamation you can use. That and other planning materials are available at ambar.org/lawday.
Examples of Law Day activities are plentiful. The ABA’s Young Lawyers Division is sponsoring an art contest for students that explores protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution. The Idaho State Bar is holding a student contest to create a podcast examining a key clause (citizenship, due process or equal protection) in the 14th Amendment. In Boston, lawyers will visit classrooms to talk about our legal system. The Texas and North Carolina Bars are sponsoring contests where students can submit an editorial, photo or poster to explain the importance of equal protection.
At a program on May 1 in Washington, D.C., the ABA Division for Public Education will gather legal scholars to discuss how the 14th Amendment transformed America, key cases and actors in its development, and what the future may bring.
I’ve talked to many lawyers over the past several months. They tell me that the value of civics education illustrated by Law Day is at least as important today as it was 60 years ago when America faced a rival that suppressed freedom and individual rights. We need your help and involvement this year. You can choose how to participate in educating your community. Only through an understanding and appreciation of our rights can we and our fellow citizens maintain the rule of law—the glue that binds our great nation together.