LAW DAY: Omaha Legal Community Reflects on Rule of Law


A judge’s gavel is shown in the Douglas County Courthouse. (David Golbitz/Daily Record)

“As the American political system, and increasingly the American public, become more polarized, an unwavering commitment by attorneys and judges to the rule of law could not be more important. The founders took great care to insulate the judiciary from political forces, and it is our responsibility to maintain (and in some cases regain) the public trust that Courts are impartial arbiters of society’s most pressing disputes. ”

John M. Gerrard

Chief United States District Judge, District of Nebraska

 

“The Nebraska Constitution mandates open courts so that “every person … shall have a remedy by due course of law and Justice administered without denial or delay.” In particular, this last year has reminded us that the rule of law endures — even in a pandemic. Crime does not stop, nor does child abuse, spouse abuse, fraud, or the myriad of other social issues that depend on the open courts administering the rule of law. I am proud of the work of the entire judicial branch in connection to this mission.”

Michael G. Heavican

Chief Justice, Nebraska Supreme Court

 

“Has there ever been a more important and overriding principle, especially in our country’s more recent history, than the need for an independent judiciary? I have had more than one person comment to me this past year how thankful they are that judges, especially our judges in Nebraska, are not political and are an independent branch of government. [...] So, this year especially, I give thanks and celebrate our independent judicial branch of government and the rule of law.”

Mike Pirtle

Chief Judge, Nebraska Court of Appeals

 

“As an intermediary between the law and the people, the judiciary’s job is to transform the law from text to action in specific human situations and struggles. The judicial process is the only opportunity to ensure that the outcome of a law is in harmony with the spirit of the law and the higher principles of the Constitution itself. Upholding the Rule of Law is vital to protecting the unalienable rights that are the bedrock and promise of our country and the great state of Nebraska. The Rule of Law is vital to provide equity and guidance as we all take part in the ageless challenge to strive for a better, fairer Nation.”

Horacio J. Wheelock

Presiding Judge, Douglas County District Court

 

“The Rule of Law is both fragile and powerful but is necessary in democracy. Its importance was first recognized by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison when he wrote that, ‘The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.’ [...] In a democracy, everyone must make a commitment to respect the Rule of Law and legal authority because its value prevents subjective judgments, secures equal justice for all and prevents tyranny and oppression.”

Thomas K. Harmon

Presiding Judge, Douglas County Court

 

“Preserving the rule of law ought to be the common project of each branch of both the federal and state governments, and that of each citizen. Most fundamental to this common project is active assurance of the separation of powers, which is under ever-present threat of either deliberate or negligent erosion. Insisting that government officials respect the limits on their power confirms Thomas Paine’s observation that while ‘in absolute governments the king is law,’ “in America the law is king.” As Justice Stephen Breyer recently remarked, ‘if the public sees judges as ‘politicians in robes,’ its confidence in the courts, and in the rule of law itself, can only diminish….’ This Law Day, let us re-dedicate ourselves to this most noble and enduring project of affirming the rule of law.

Douglas J. Peterson

Nebraska Attorney General

 

“We as Nebraska lawyers understand that we are a nation of laws that provide a system to resolve our difference in a peaceful process whether it be in the legislative bodies, or our courtrooms, or our executive offices. We can be a source and model for accurate and trusted information about our Constitution and our justice system. We can be a voice to educate clients, friends and family, both young and old, about the importance of the rights and responsibilities we share as citizens and the importance of trust in the judicial process. In the end, that is the framework for a more productive and healthy dialogue to peacefully work through our differences in the future.”

Jill Robb Ackerman

President, Nebraska State Bar Association

 

“The rule of law functions because most of us agree that it is imperative to follow laws every day. A society based on the Rule of Law cannot function if the citizens do not respect the laws. The Nebraska State Bar Foundation is committed to providing civics education to Nebraska teachers and students. The legal profession has the opportunity to model civic responsibility and engagement by actively being involved in civics education.”

Robert D. Mullin Jr.

President, Nebraska State Bar Foundation

 

“Attorneys share the responsibility to promote the rule of law and help ensure that justice is accessible, fair and efficient. This Law Day, I am honored to recognize and thank Nebraska lawyers for their efforts to expand access to justice in our state through the provision of pro bono legal services.”

William J. Mueller

President, Nebraska Lawyers Foundation

 

“As legal administrators, we see our role within law firms as twofold. First, to ensure everyone is treated equally. Second, to continually seek out and educate ourselves on how to move our firms forward into the future. Our guiding light is the belief in the rule of law, providing us with the foundation for leading our firms in a responsible and ethical manner.”

Christi Leupold

President, Nebraska Association of Legal Administrators

 

“The Nebraska Paralegal Association supports equality of all citizens. Rule of law allows citizens to hold the government and individuals accountable. Laws must be clear, public, and protect fundamental rights under the Constitution. Justice also has to be accessible to all. Those serving communities must be ethical, accessible, and reflect the people they serve. Nebraska paralegals strive every day to uphold the principles under the rule of law and work continuously to support individuals and entities in the justice system.”

Angel M. Younger

President, Nebraska Paralegal Association

 

“As criminal defense attorneys we often take cases that are difficult and sometimes controversial because we know that, for our criminal justice system to function at all, every accused individual must have effective representation. Every person is accountable to the law and every person is entitled to the protection of the law.

Kenny Jacobs

President, Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association

 

“Prosecutors review the evidence, evaluate the facts, apply the law, and decide upon charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They exercise their best judgment based on the rule of law. There are also stringent ethical rules to follow. It is not the role of a prosecutor to say what should or should not be a crime. The Legislature makes that decision. Following the rule of law in the context of criminal prosecution is not defined by failing to enforce laws we disagree with and are sworn to uphold. Prosecutorial integrity is defined by fidelity to the rule of law. The criminal justice system is similarly internally balanced by the power of the rule of law. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries provide oversight of one another. Each functions equally within the greater system. Each fulfills an important and independent role according to the rule of law.”

Patrick F. Condon

President, Nebraska County Attorneys Association

 

“To me, the Rule of Law is a crucial component of our ability and right as citizens and human beings to exercise our agency. When laws — especially good ones — are fairly and objectively enforced, the governed can confidently make decisions based on accurate and informed predictions about the results and consequences of those decisions. For example, in a society with a strong Rule of Law, I can enter into a contract with Acme Co. to do any number of things — e.g., build my house, perform the accounting for my small business, provide engineering consulting services for a bridge I’m supposed to build, or give daycare to my small children — confident that Acme Co. will perform or be required to make me whole.”

Trent Tanner

Co-President, Nebraska Chapter, Federalist Society

 

“The rule of law is anchored in the sacred principle that the law applies to all of us, regardless of someone’s power, popularity or political affiliation. This theme is not only powerful but also timely given the assault this core democratic and legal value recently endured during the organized attempt to overturn a free and fair election. That campaign was waged by some of the most powerful politicians in America and in Nebraska. Fortunately, it was also swiftly decried by countless Americans across the political spectrum and resoundingly defeated in the courts by fair-minded jurists who safeguard the rule of law. We can never forget that abuse of power. As we move forward and reflect on this Law Day, I hope each lawyer, judge and elected official in Nebraska draws more upon our proud Nebraska history and traditions.”

Danielle Conrad

Executive Director, ACLU of Nebraska

 

“Laws have a powerful impact on people’s lives. As lawyers, we have an obligation to ensure laws effectuate justice and help solve problems in ways that advance equity. Our country’s history is rich with examples of laws that have marginalized people based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, and religious affiliation. Despite the progress that’s been made, there is still much work to be done. Law Day calls us to reflect on our legal system, listen to different perspectives on the law, take in stories of how the law has shaped people’s lives, and to renew our commitment to improving our laws and legal system. Our communities are calling out for change, for racial justice, and for equity and today’s a great day for lawyers to answer that call.”

Rebecca L. Gould

Executive Director, Nebraska Appleseed

 

“The Rule of Law establishes a standard of morality for all individuals in our society. It provides a foundation that our nation is rooted in, while also creating a standard to aspire to. Through the application of the Rule of Law, minority rights are protected from the racism and brutality of the majority rule and long-standing historical practices. By advancing the Rule of Law, our society can attain a better America for all inhabitants, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic background. A country united is one that cannot be easily divided, and the Rule of Law moves us closer to this maxim and a better American society.”

Traemon Anderson

President, Creighton School of Law Black Law Student Association

 

"Without the Constitution and the laws created under its framework there would be no rule of law and no change. America would be like China or Russia or North Korea or Myanmar or any of the other countries where the rights Americans take for granted do not exist. The citizens of those countries are clamoring for freedom and liberty. When we get through the censorship and restrictions on information, we see the governments stifling, imprisoning, and sometimes killing citizens to maintain the status quo and prevent change. The first things those governments do is to eliminate the rights Americans take for granted. No free speech, no assembly, no free press."

David J. Koukol

President, Omaha Bar Association

 

"Sarpy County’s commitment to mental health is an acknowledgment there is a greater societal benefit when, under appropriate circumstances, an underlying mental health issue is addressed as an alternative to incarceration.  When we take this approach it’s a recognition that justice isn’t 'one size fits all' and neither is the 'rule of law.'"

Bonnie N. Moore

Chief Deputy, Sarpy County Attorney's Office

 

"This year’s theme is particularly exciting for me as it goes to the core of my beliefs – the importance of the role that local government plays.  Local government, meaning counties, cities, school boards, and the like, all play the vital role of being the ‘delivery system’, let’s say ‘where the rubber meets the road,’ for the Rule of Law.  And considering this, to me, there is a commitment we have to have as elected officials to do our best to accurately reflect the values, beliefs and priorities of all the people we serve.  "

Mary Ann Borgeson

Chair, Douglas County Board of Commissioners

 

These submissions from the area legal community were edited for length. Find each person's full remarks by following the links on their names.

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