LAW DAY: Reflecting Upon the Rule of Law in This Moment in History

By 
David J. Koukol
Omaha Bar Association

Law Day 2021 comes at a dynamic point in the history of the United States of America, with the recent events to which we have been witnesses.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day in 1958 “as a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law.” The importance of the rule of law and its contributions to the freedoms Americans enjoy has been recognized every year since then.

In 1961, the United States Congress designated May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day.

As President Eisenhower noted, “The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.” He saw that as the Allied Commander in Europe during World War II. Over 400,000 Americans died fighting in foreign lands. Estimates are that between 75 million and 85 million people died during that war, roughly 3% of the world’s then population of 2.3 billion.

We have recently seen America’s laws and the legal process at work.

Liberty and justice might be infringed upon by individuals, but America has responded by following the rule of law.

Granted, the response was slow to correct wrongs that history perpetuated, and Americans were reluctant to confront — slavery and women’s right to vote to name just two.

Context is important to history. At the time the Constitution was drafted, debated and eventually ratified in 1789, slavery was an institution and women did not have the right to vote (or own property in some states).

For centuries governments failed to take action to right these wrongs. Some change comes slowly and at terrible costs.

It took the Civil War, with the deaths of over 650,000 soldiers and the determination of President Abraham Lincoln, to end slavery in 1865. The debates and fighting at the time were fierce. But the reformers used the Constitution’s framework and the sacrifices of many soldiers to enact much needed change.

The right of women to vote was finally recognized when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in the Senate in 1919 and ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures on Aug. 26, 1920.

The basic rights to speak and assemble freely allowed women to bring their protests to the government’s doorsteps, until their voices were heard.

Americans have given their lives and used their rights to speak freely and assemble peacefully to bring about change and correct history’s wrongs.

Change has come slowly and at a price. But there has been change.

Almost 100 years after the Civil War ended, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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.

There is undoubtedly a lot more change in store for America. The debates will continue. Americans will speak their minds and peacefully assemble to advocate for change — because they can.

The goal of change must be to improve America so that all Americans experience “freedom” and “liberty” and we hold ourselves out as an example to the world.

Change takes a long time and when it comes to America’s system of government it is never ending. But that is why it is the “American Experiment” or “Democracy in action.”

When Americans’ attempts at change fail, no one fears being put into prison or being sent to a re-education camp to think like the government wants them to think.

Americans can regroup and continue to push for change, using the Rule of Law.

That’s the American Spirit and why there’s no place better than America.

On this Law Day 2021, let us remember how fortunate we are to be Americans, what we owe to those who have gone before us to enact change, and what we will do to use the Rule of Law to keep changing America for the greater good of all Americans. In this way we will make America better and America will continue to be the icon of freedom for people all over the world.

 

David J. Koukol is president of the Omaha Bar Association. He is an attorney at Koukol & Johnson.

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