LAW DAY REFLECTIONS: Thomas K. Harmon

It was widely reported that upon leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a char woman approached Benjamin Franklin, and asked him if the Framers had produced a monarchy and he was reported to have responded, “No Madam, you have a republic, if you can keep it.”  Since its enactment, we have relied on a constitutional structure dependent on the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances between the three branches of our government.

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.”

More recently, Chief Justice Roberts called on everyone to include judges and regular citizens to invest themselves in the preservation of constitutional democracy based on the rule of law noting that, “President Ronald Reagan used to speak of the Soviet constitution, and he noted that it purported to grant wonderful rights of all sorts to people. But those rights were empty promises, because that system did not have an independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law and enforce those rights.” 

Why should the Rule of Law be a theme for Law Day – 2021?  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.  As a simple example, imagine what daily life would be like if everyone simply ignored traffic laws and signals.  We need to take up Franklin’s challenge and understand that we each have rights and privileges that are accompanied by duties and obligations and it is our responsibility as a citizen to be educated.  Many commentators, historians, authors and federal judges recognize that without civic education, the freedom assured by our Constitution is in jeopardy.

It is our obligation to not only teach civic responsibility but to lead by example so that we all become responsible citizens and active participants in our democracy.  Today, the challenge is for each of us to be informed, to be educated, to become engaged and to be attentive to public affairs because an informed citizen is indispensable to democracy.

As U.S. District Judge William Smith recently warned in a case involving an action by high school students seeking a stronger civic education curriculum, “What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril. Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”

Thomas K. Harmon

Presiding Judge, Douglas County Court

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