Law Day’s story began nearly six decades ago when President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day to honor the country’s judicial legacy.
“[A] day of national dedication to the principle of government under laws would afford us an opportunity better to understand and appreciate the manifold virtues of such a government and to focus the attention of the world upon them,” Ike wrote in the inaugural Law Day proclamation.
The idea was presented to the White House a few months earlier in 1957, by American Bar Association President Charles S. Rhyne.
The ABA’s current president, Linda A. Klein, tells the story: “He was watching pictures of the Soviet Union May Day celebration, May 1, and he watched missiles and tanks marching down Red Square. And he said America was about rule of law, not rule of force.”
The era of Cold War posturing may be over, but Klein, the Atlanta-based senior managing shareholder of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz P.C., said it’s just as important today to ask Americans to reflect on the rights given to them in the country’s fundamental documents.
That’s why she said it was such a privilege for her to pick the 14th Amendment as the ABA’s theme for Law Day 2017.
“It is such a highly litigated part of the Constitution, and yet among the least understood,” she said. “Most Americans don’t realize how the 14th Amendment affects their lives.”
Nor do many Americans realize that the rights received under the 14th Amendment weren’t part of the American system of government in its infancy.
“It is roughly the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment,” Klein said.
The amendment was adopted in July 1868, but it was sent to the states for approval in June 1866.
“So we’re in the year between congressional and state ratification,” she said. “So that’s why I zeroed in on the 14th Amendment.”
Klein said the theme was picked several years ago, before the 2016 election cycle.
And she sees the legal community as well-equipped to draw that connection for the public between a 150-year-old document and more contemporary legal and policy milestones.
For example, she said, the 14th Amendment served as a cornerstone of 20th century civil rights legislation — by giving Congress the ability to pass laws aimed at enforcing citizenship rights, due process and equal protection.
Among those laws are the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said.
And she cited Supreme Court cases like Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 — granting a fundamental right to marry to same-sex couples — as proof the 14th Amendment will continue to be cited by modern courts and judges to affect people’s lives.
“Those are the kinds of things the 14th Amendment has enabled us Americans to enjoy.”
Tonight, the ABA hosts its 15th annual Leon Jaworski Public Program, a panel discussion at Jones Day’s Washington, D.C., office. And on Tuesday morning in Washington, the ABA will invite about 150 high school students from across the country for its Dialogue on the 14th Amendment session.
But it’s not all about the nation’s capital on Law Day — the ABA also incorporates its Chicago headquarters at 321 N. Clark St. into the mix.
“Every year on Law Day, the ABA does a trivia quiz for everybody in the office building where the ABA is,” Klein said.
There’s a prize wheel involved. Anybody interested in testing their knowledge is welcome, she said.
This year happens to mark 80 years since the ABA first moved to Chicago, setting up shop in the Rookery Building in 1927.
“There are many Illinois lawyers that are staff members at the ABA, and they do fabulous work to educate the public,” Klein said.
“We’re proud to be part of the community, that’s for darn sure.”