Friday, April 30, 2010

Law Day at 52

May 1 is not only an international day of celebration for the labor movement, it is officially “Law Day, U.S.A.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the holiday in early 1958, just months after sending federal troops to Little Rock and shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit. Both civil rights and the Cold War were clearly on his mind. “[T]he principle of guaranteed fundamental rights of individuals under the law is the heart and sinew of our Nation,” Eisenhower declared in his Law Day Proclamation. It distinguishes the U.S. "from the type of government that rules by might alone”; it makes the country “an inspiration and a beacon of light for oppressed peoples of the world.” Eisenhower invited citizens to use Law Day as “an opportunity to better understand and appreciate the manifold virtues” of a government ruled by law, “and to focus the attention of the world upon them.” The American Bar Association, which proposed the idea to Eisenhower, took the lead in planning commemorative events and programs.

Although Law Day is not well known, every president since Eisenhower has issued a Law Day Proclamation. (You can view them all on the Library of Congress website.) Taken together, they exemplify the malleability of the discourse of rights and law. For example, Eisenhower’s 1959 Proclamation, issued amidst “massive resistance” to desegregation, departs from the previous year’s in stressing that the rule of law must be recognized as supreme (“[A] free people can assure the blessings of liberty . . . only if they recognize the necessity that the rule of law shall be supreme”). Other elements remain the same, but receive more emphasis, such as the idea that adherence to the rule of law (combined here with a “system of free enterprise”) sets the U.S. apart from the non-democratic powers “enslav[ing] . . . one-third of the world.” The next year’s Proclamation (1960) strikes a more conciliatory tone (“[T]his Nation seeks only fairness and justice in its relations with other nations”), but by the time John F. Kennedy takes office, the country once again appears embroiled in a fight for survival. Kennedy’s 1962 Proclamation portrays an embattled nation, relying on the rule of law as a “vital bulwark[]” in its “struggle” to defend its way of life.

Subsequent years would witness an escalation of the fight against communist forces in Vietnam, yet President Lyndon Johnson’s Proclamations look inward rather than outward. The lawlessness they decry is not that of America’s foreign enemies, but of its own citizens, especially youth. Johnson’s 1964 Proclamation, for example, aspires to bring “to all citizens, and particularly to young Americans” a “fuller awareness” of the importance of “[r]espect for law.” The following year’s Proclamation hits the same notes, and frowns on those who demonstrate “apathy” and obstructionism (Americans must “support[] and aid[] the agencies of law enforcement” and -- an unusually specific mandate -- “giv[e] testimony in court when called”). 

This message grows increasingly urgent over the following years, as riots, assassinations, and public violence color the news – and call into question the legitimacy of the legal system. Johnson's 1968 Proclamation begs Americans to recognize that the law “is not the mere exercise of power” nor “just a device to enforce the status quo,” but a “system that permits existing rights to be protected, injustices to be remedied, and disputes to be resolved, without recourse to self-defeating violence.” The 1968 Proclamation also stands out for its suggestion – to some, its promise – that law responds to society: “Law is a process of continuous growth that allows the creation of new rights . . . through a deliberative, democratic process”; the legal system can yet become “more just, more effective, and more responsive to our people’s needs.” President Nixon’s Law Day Proclamations are what one might expect. He conveys openness to legal change, but emphasizes “orderly process.” He honors the law and the lawgivers, but “above all those citizens who keep the law,” the Silent Majority that swept him into office. Nixon’s 1974 Proclamation is particularly ironic: It notes that “the law retains its value and force because every person knows that no man or woman is above” its requirements. 

Ronald Reagan, another famous advocate of “law and order,” returns to Eisenhower’s “beacon of light” rhetoric in his 1982 Proclamation (Reagan uses “beacon of liberty”). The United States, in this telling, is a “model of representative democracy” for “oppressed peoples around the globe,” the proverbial City on a Hill. Reagan also states outright what other presidents left unsaid: that “Law Day U.S.A. stands in sharp contrast to ‘May Day’ observances conducted in the Communist world.” Like Christmas, Law Day is a celebration deliberately superimposed on a powerful alternative tradition.  

As we begin to write the history of our own times, the Law Day Proclamations will be valuable sources, for they identify the major issues that previous administrations associated with Law. President George H. W. Bush’s 1990 Proclamation, for example, mentions the HIV epidemic and crack babies. His 1992 Proclamation alludes to the acquittal of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a decision that sparked the Los Angeles Riots. (The statement recognizes that “a large number of Americans” viewed the verdict as “indefensible,” but insists that “we must pursue peaceful, orderly means of resolving such concerns.”) President Clinton’s Proclamations discuss drive-by shootings (1994), the “information superhighway” (1995), and discrimination against homosexuals (1999). Interestingly, George W. Bush’s Proclamations say nothing of the fight against terrorism, the hallmark of his years in office. His 2001 Proclamation emphasizes the rights of crime victims; in 2002 and 2003 (after Senate Democrats blocked a number of his judicial nominees), he focuses on judges; his 2006 Proclamation is an ode to “Separate Branches” and “Balanced Powers.” President Obama’s first Law Day Proclamation (2009) may be one of the least “legal” of all: it celebrates the nation’s commitment to “the rule of law” and “equality under the law,” but its theme is the role of government in a country based on union. The U.S. government exists, according to this Proclamation, to pursue the common good, to do what we, in our individual capacities, cannot do for ourselves.

My favorite Law Day Proclamation, however, is from 1966. It not only includes a catchy marketing phrase (“Respect the Law – It Respects You”!), it captures both the importance and the limits of the Law Day initiative. “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women,” the Proclamation opens, borrowing the words of the great Learned Hand. “[W]hen it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

Image credits: scale/flag, May Day cover

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