The theme for Law Day this year—No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom—expresses a cornerstone principle of the American way of life that traces its origin back to the very creation of our national government.
In his June 8, 1789 speech to Congress in support of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, James Madison stated that once our fundamental freedoms were incorporated into the U.S. Constitution,
independent tribunals of justice will consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights; they will be an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive; they will be naturally led to resist every encroachment upon rights expressly stipulated for in the constitution….
Similarly, in The Federalist No. 78, another of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, acknowledged the essential role played by a free and independent judiciary in protecting our foundational liberties, observing that “[t]his independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals,” and that:
[t]he benefits of the integrity and moderation of the judiciary…have commanded the esteem and applause of all the virtuous and disinterested. Considerate men, of every description, ought to prize whatever will tend to beget or fortify that temper in the courts….
These concepts of judicial independence and impartial courts, so strongly advocated and genuinely cherished by those who constructed the framework of our government, are now so deeply ingrained in our own thinking that there is a danger we may take for granted the central function that our third branch of government performs in the preservation of our freedom. Our courts act as a safeguard against the intrusive and overbearing power of government and serve to give a voice to all, not merely to the powerful and the advantaged. It is indeed gratifying to know that, even in this age of increasing political discord and the growing public cynicism that it engenders, our citizens continue to look with confidence to the judicial branch of government to level the playing field and to resolve disputes in a fair and impartial manner.
Americans highly prize their ability to make use of the courts as forums where wrongs will be righted, interests will be vindicated, and true justice will be dispensed. They remain secure in the knowledge that they can resort to the judicial system—their judicial system—to enforce their rights, protect their liberties, and thwart the unjustified curtailment of their freedom. It is precisely because of this great public trust reposed in the courts that my colleagues and I at the Appellate Division, Second Department, have dedicated ourselves to the prompt, thorough and even-handed adjudication of the disputes that come before us, without fear or favor, and without interference from the current fiscal austerity so familiar to all of us.
The Role of the Bar
However, the courts do not act alone; the judiciary at all times partners with the members of the bar in discharging its role as protector of our freedom. Indeed, attorneys are on the “front line” in this endeavor, as they have the first opportunity to recognize and seek to redress the impingements upon the rights of their clients. Counsel fulfill an indispensable role in gathering the evidence, researching the law, and framing the issues for the courts; functions that are critical to the proper administration of justice. This point brings to mind the wise words of my late colleague, the much beloved Appellate Division Justice Steven Fisher. When Judge Fisher would swear in a class of new attorneys at our court, he would first observe that tradition dictated that he should “make some remark to the class that is designed to inspire you as you go out into the practice of law.” He would then speak about one of his favorite films, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, explaining its relevance to the law and to freedom in the following manner:
[The film] purports to tell the story of the biblical exodus, it claims to tell the story of the birth of freedom in the world. We see a people held in bondage for hundreds of years, we see the glorious day of their liberation…[a]nd then we see their leader, Moses, played by Charlton Heston, go up to the mountain to get the ten commandments. And when he’s late in coming down, some of the people rebel. They engage in wild and lawless activities. And then [Moses] comes down and he confronts the rebels and he says that he has brought them laws of life and death, of good and evil. And the leader of the rebels…says “We will not live by your commandments, we are free.” To which [Moses]…responds, “There is no freedom without the law. There is no freedom without the law.”
Judge Fisher would then continue:
I’m here to tell you, just as in that movie, that there is no freedom without the law and, more than that, there is no law without the men and women dedicated to its service. When you go out into practice…, so long as you work within the law, you serve the law and by serving the law you safeguard the nation’s freedom.
As the foregoing remarks illustrate, Judge Fisher eloquently communicated, in his unique style, one of the most fundamental truths of our legal system. When attorneys represent their clients to the best of their abilities, and when the courts hear and decide the matters before them with competence and impartiality and in accordance with the rule of law, then the public can trust that the system is fair and that our freedom is assured. As the courts and the bar move forward together in this noble endeavor, we must be mindful of the enormous public trust placed in us to preserve the freedom that is our birthright, and we must honor that trust by faithfully pursuing those lofty ideals described by Madison and Hamilton at the birth of our nation.
William F. Mastro is Acting Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department.