The Cornerstones of Democracy:
Civics, Civility and Collaboration

Law Day began as the vision of Charles S. Rhyne, the American Bar Association’s president in 1957, has become an annual observation of our nation’s adherence to the rule of law. Since established by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s proclamation in 1958, the spirit of Law Day has been one of celebrating our legal system. It has been an increasingly popular event over the last 65 years and is a day that highlights our dedication to the principles of government under the law.

Bar groups, courts, schools, youth groups and community organizations celebrate on May 1 each year with various activities including essay contests, speeches, and seminars. It gives Americans an opportunity to understand how the law and the legal process protect our liberty, strive for justice, and contribute to the freedoms we all share.

This year’s theme is “The Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration.”

Here are some thoughts from STCL Houston faculty members R. Randall Kelso, Spurgeon E. Bell Distinguished Professor of Law, and Dr. Derek Fincham, Associate Dean for Part-time and Online Education and Professor of Law.

The views stated in these articles are solely those of the authors and are not purported to be the views of South Texas College of Law Houston or any other institution or individual.

Law Day Articles

Thoughts on the Theme of This Year’s Law Day

Professor R. Randall Kelso

Regarding Civics, I start with the Declaration of Independence and its statement that all persons “are created equal” and there are “unalienable Rights [to] Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” which governments are “instituted” to “secure.” To me, this means all individuals should have equal opportunities to pursue happiness free from exploitation or barriers created by others. Slaveholders before the Civil War asserted that banning slavery was taking away their liberty to own slaves and interfering with their states’ rights to order society in that manner. But that liberty to exploit others, which will inevitably result in exploitation by the rich and powerful, is not the Declaration’s meaning. Grounded in the Scottish and English Enlightenments, its meaning is about guaranteeing an equal opportunity to be free from such exploitation. That is the freedom to which lawyers should aspire.

Regarding Civility, I think people should discuss issues in a civil manner. One does not have to protest violently or refuse to let individuals who wish to speak have their say, as sometimes occurs.  But civility does not require passive toleration or silence when faced with views that support exploitation.

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Regarding Collaboration, it is nice to collaborate where possible.  To me, a precondition for effective collaboration is an agreement to discuss and debate issues based on a commitment to truth, rational dialogue, and respect for facts, including those generated by scientific inquiry. It is hard to collaborate if the other side engages in deliberately false propaganda or whose response is that we should not talk or teach about certain matters because they might make the beneficiaries of past exploitation uncomfortable.

Admittedly, the Constitution was drafted by predominantly straight, white, affluent, male patriarchs (acronym SWAMP). But even they shared the aspirations reflected in the Declaration of Independence, and reaffirmed in the preamble to the Constitution, for “a more perfect Union” which would “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Our nation’s history has been the story of us gradually pulling ourselves out of the SWAMP in which our nation, and our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., was founded. Votes were extended to the poor during the era of Jacksonian democracy; slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War; the right to vote was constitutionally guaranteed to nonwhites in 1870 and to women in 1920; the Jim Crow era was gradually abolished following Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; the civil rights movement happened in the 1960s and the women’s rights movement in the 1970s; and civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community have been extended during the past 30 years.

Much remains to be done to continue the process of removing racism against persons of color, and institutional bias against women, the poor, and the LGBTQ+ community, but much has been accomplished and deserves to be celebrated on Law Day, and indeed every day.

Choosing the Law and Good Trouble

Dr. Derek Fincham

President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated May 1 as Law Day in 1958 to spotlight the key role of the law as a counter to violence and unrest. In the official proclamation he noted that “the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive it must choose the rule of law.”

Taking a path towards civilization was an important goal to set. Eisenhower was uniquely positioned as the former military leader of the Allied Forces, and he had witnessed the massive loss of life and atrocities committed during the Second World War. Choosing a path towards the law meant that the law itself might be a better tool to prevent this kind of carnage in the future. The decades which followed saw the development and growth of public international law to prevent the destruction wrought during WWII. This era saw international cooperation and international law come together to work to prevent the horrors of war.

As long as a system of laws has existed, the rights and privileges of the law are sometimes applied unequally. The word civilization in Eisenhower’s statement reflects the word’s origin in the Latin “civilitas,” meaning “relating to citizens”. The word gradually came to mean orderly behavior or good citizenship. Being a citizen in ancient Rome afforded special status with respect to law and property. The ancient Roman concept of citizenship gradually expanded, but always carried with it the idea of graduated citizenship and legal rights.

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Consider the individual rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and by various Constitutional amendments. We have solidified the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property; equal protection; due process; and privacy. These rights were of course not enjoyed equally.

In reflecting on Law Day, and the role law can have in countering violence, we should also remember that rights can be denied. As the late Congressman John Lewis, son of a sharecropper growing up in Alabama, said often, many of these core rights of civilians and the privileges of civilization were denied to him. He was inspired to activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

In 1965, a young John Lewis led more than 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to demonstrate the need for voting rights in Alabama. Their peaceful march was met with brutal force by Alabama State Troopers. When civil rights were denied, the future Congressman was inspired by Parks to “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

The goal of lifting up the law remains as laudable today as it was at the start of the celebration of Law Day, but we must remember too that when imposed unequally or unjustly the law can deny basic rights and liberties. We should be wary of the cloak of civility impeding the work of the good and necessary troublemakers.

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