It was May 1, 1957, the heart of the Cold War. Troops, tanks and missiles paraded down Red Square in Moscow, a show of military might that continues annually.
American Bar Association President Charles Rhyne watched the parade on a black-and-white TV and realized that America’s great strength comes from our fidelity to the rule of law, not a rule of force propped up by lavish displays of military prowess.
Inspired, Rhyne asked President Dwight Eisenhower to issue the first Law Day proclamation, declaring that “guaranteed fundamental rights of individuals under the law is the heart and sinew of our Nation.” Rhyne described the rule of law as “the cement that holds our free society together.” Every president since has signed a proclamation marking May 1 as Law Day in our country.
On Law Day, we celebrate the rule of law. We teach it in classrooms. We hold seminars and contests. We write editorials, snap photos and create posters and podcasts.
Today, it often seems that we are a nation divided, but one thing Republicans, Democrats and independents agree on: The American rule of law is the envy of billions around the world. It is the glue that binds our democracy and ensures the equality of all, no matter what their station in life.
No one is above the law. That’s the principle on which our nation was founded. It’s the principle that makes our government “of the people” a shining example for all who aspire to freedom and justice.
In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln promised “a new birth of freedom.” Just three years after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was ratified. When it took effect in 1868, the amendment protected citizenship rights of recently freed slaves and, for the first time, constitutionally defined U.S. citizenship. It also allowed the key guarantees of the Bill of Rights to become enforceable against the states, not just the federal government.
This year, the ABA has chosen the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as its Law Day theme. Most Americans have no idea what the 14th Amendment is, but it profoundly affects our daily lives.
The amendment’s due-process clause is the basis for court recognition of certain fundamental rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, including the right to privacy. The equal protection clause protects the rights of all Americans to equal treatment under the law.
It is one of the most litigated but least understood of all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution. For more than a century, it has been the legal basis for many of the most famous and most controversial Supreme Court cases, including:
—Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional. Today, it ensures that every child in the United States is entitled to the same, equal public education, regardless of race.
—Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 civil rights decision that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
—Frontiero v. Richardson, a 1973 ruling that invalidated discrimination on the basis of gender — argued and won by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 20 years before she joined the Supreme Court.
“The reason we have the 14th Amendment,” said former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, “is to provide the courts with the opportunity to override the will of the people when the will of the people discriminates against a segment of our society.”
So on Law Day 2017, let’s celebrate and spread the word: The U.S. Constitution is America’s greatest creation. It is worth defending and teaching — on Law Day and every day. You can find details at www.lawday.org and you can use the information to create your own Law Day program. Whether it’s May 1 or Nov. 1, every day is a good day to celebrate our nation’s commitment to the rule of law.