COMMENTARY 773.3: What’s So Important About the Law?

Did you know today is Law Day?

In 1958 President Eisenhower declared May 1st Law Day to honor the critical role of law in our unique constitutional democracy. It may seem peculiar to some to celebrate the concept and reality of law, but the truth is that most of us vastly under-appreciate the significance of law to our way of thinking and our way of life.

Sure, we can criticize the lawmaking process which yielded Otto von Bismarck’s famous observation: “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” But what’s the alternative?

And it’s easy to criticize particular laws and court decisions we disagree with, but it would lead to chaos if we only felt obliged to abide by the laws we agree with.

We need laws to allow us to enforce contracts, discourage unsafe driving, assure the safety of food and drugs, and even to protect us from our neighbor’s dog. And without laws to enforce or constitutional rights to free speech, religion, privacy, and fair trials, the liberties we hold so dear would be nonexistent.

Laws, and the courts we empower to enforce them, allow us to resolve personal disputes peaceably, but they also provide a rational way to mediate passionate political and ideological disagreements, even about the meaning and effect of the constitutional principles the courts are empowered to uphold.

Unless we want to abandon the fundamental principles of democracy, we must accept the law as the final arbiter of legal, political and ideological disputes, including those concerning controversial issues such as stem-cell research, abortion, same-sex marriages, access to automatic weapons, and how to deal with suspected criminals and terrorists.

Though it is certain that no legal solution will please everyone, these areas of intense disagreement are precisely the ones where we most need citizens to respect and abide by democratic processes.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 3

  1. Michael,
    May Day has been used to celebrate labor movements, and the fight for fair pay and working conditions, for over 100 years. It commemorates the deaths of strikers in the Haymarket riots, when union members protested in support of the 8-hour work day.
    Eisenhower didn’t create “Law Day” out of love for the constitution. He did it to draw attention *away* from workers’ May Day celebrations. This was the height of the Red Scare.
    Today, members of the Occupy movement used May Day to call attention back to issues of inequality, workers’ rights, and the enormous wealth gaps in our society.
    Whether or not you agree with aims of the Occupy movement, or with the aims of workers’ movements in general, at the very least, they are sincere efforts to work toward a more just and ethical society, as defined by these activists. The creation of “Law Day,” on the other hand, was just a cynical attempt to replace the day’s celebration of workers’ rights with bland bromides — and an attempt to whitewash history.
    You say that MLK is one of your most important heroes, yet he was a tireless champion of poor and working people, and called for jobs and a living wage for all. He died while supporting striking workers. By celebrating “Law Day,” you, on the other hand, champion an effort to take attention *away* from struggles that support poor and working people. How sad.

  2. The rule of law is one that makes our country great, but the rule of law applies to other countries as well. We take it for granted that most of our laws are fair and for the good of the people. Our very laws make us free. In other countries, the rule of law is another concept, considering Sharia law, tribal law and others that we cannot even conceive. To have laws that are that oppressive are unbelievable to us, but real to those who live under the yoke of oppression. So, as we celebrate “Law” Day, remember those who are following laws that we would consider unfair, illogical, oppressive, and wrong, yet, they must follow or forfeit their lives in many cases.

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