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Commentary: A Nation of Laws

By William Holston, Commentator

Dallas, TX –

In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower designated May 1, as Law Day. Each year since then our country has set aside May 1, to celebrate the idea that as President Eisenhower put it, "The principle of guaranteed fundamental rights of individuals under the law is the heart and sinew of our Nation, and distinguishes our governmental system from the type of government that rules by might alone."

The originator of the idea for Law Day was Charles Ryne, former president of the American Bar Association. Ryne intended that Law Day would stand as a contrast to the militaristic celebration of May Day in the former Soviet Union. Ryne said in a radio address on that first law day that: "The phrase "Equal Justice Under Law" is our creed and birthright. Our Constitution guarantees every citizen equal protection under the law. Not some protection, but equal protection. And this means equal justice under the law to the poor and to the rich, to the weak and powerful alike."

This is an extraordinary idea. It is a result of the foresight of the founders of this country in drafting our constitution, and particularly the rights contained in the first ten amendments. Those rights include free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of the press and the right to a jury of our peers. This Constitution has stood the test of time and is the foundation of the rule of law in our country.

The fictional lawyer Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's book, To Kill a Mockingbird, celebrates this rule of law: "Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country, our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal."

Equal access to justice is, however, an ideal that has not fully been realized. Despite the efforts of many dedicated people, access to real justice is denied to many who cannot afford it. I am proud to be a member of the Dallas Bar Association's Pro Bono Activities Committee. Every month we gather and discuss how to best recruit and train lawyers to provide legal services to those who cannot afford them.

In 2008, lawyers in the Dallas Bar, contributed 25,577 pro bono hours with a value of $3.8 million. Personally, as much as I appreciate all my clients, working for justice, with no expectation of being paid for it is one of the satisfying aspects of my practice. Yet, too many lawyers fail to participate in this most satisfying experience. They miss out of the opportunity to participate the sacred duty of making justice available to all.

The theme of this year's Law Day, "A Legacy of Liberty' recognizes that 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

President Lincoln and his law firm tried over 1000 jury trials, and handled over 400 appeals to the Illinois Supreme Court. He handled large commercial cases as well as smaller cases for individuals. He once wrote: "Justice is not a fiction, and though it is often held to be a sentiment only, or a remote idea, it is real, and it is founded and guarded on all sides by the strongest powers of divine and human law."

I occasionally hear people make light of our legal system. This cynicism arises from the fact we take for granted rights which simply do not exist for much of the rest of the world. The political and religious refugees I've met do not take these rights for granted. They have experienced what is like to have force and not law rule a country. This Law Day I urge us as citizens to pause for a moment and reflect with gratitude on the freedoms we have. And to my fellow lawyers, I implore you to be the men and women that stand as guardians of these timeless ideals, and devoted to the idea of making our laws and court accessible to everyone.

William Holston is a lawyer from Dallas.

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