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Law Day 2011 celebrates John Adams

Madison, Wisconsin - April 28, 2011

In marking the nation’s first Law Day, May 1, 1958, President Eisenhower called on all Americans to vigilantly guard our “great heritage of liberty, justice and equality under law.”

Eisenhower proclaimed that the principle of guaranteed fundamental rights of individuals under the law is at the heart of our nation, “and distinguishes our governmental system from the type of government that rules by might alone….” Eisenhower said we had a “moral and civic obligation as free men and Americans to preserve and strengthen that great heritage.”

More than 50 years later, the tradition, and cause to celebrate Law Day, continues. The theme of this year’s Law Day, as promoted by the American Bar Association (ABA), is “The Legacy of John Adams, from Boston to Guantanamo.” 

This theme gives us a chance to explore the historical and contemporary role of lawyers in defending the Constitution, and to renew our understanding of and appreciation for our fundamental rights and the principle that we are all governed by law.

Let’s face it. Lawyers aren’t always popular. This was as true in Adams’ day as it is today. But that’s not necessarily a bad sign. In fact, it may mean a lawyer is doing a good job in our adversarial legal system.

Without vigorous representation, even for unpopular causes and unpopular people, our legal system would not properly function. John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States, taught us this lesson early in American legal history.

Five years before the Revolutionary War, Adams represented a British officer and soldiers charged with firing into a crowd, killing five colonists and injuring six others in Boston in 1770.

Adams’ performance at the Boston Massacre trials resulted in acquittal of one officer in one trial and all but two soldiers in a second trial. His work is recognized as a prime example of the adherence to the rule of law and defense of the rights of the accused.

It couldn’t have been easy for Adams. He was a leader in the American colonial resistance to British parliamentary authority. Yet he agreed to take on the cases and defended the British officer and soldiers at trial, despite criticism and risk to his legal practice and personal safety. He challenged jurors to apply the law as it was written, not as they wanted it to be, and to not let their personal feelings interfere.

While this year highlights Adams and his role in the Boston Massacre trial, the ABA notes other noteworthy cases that put lawyers, judges and the legal system in a tight spot in light of the passions of the day:

- Sigmund Ziesler’s and William Perkins Black’s 1886 representation of the Haymarket 8 accused of killing a Chicago police officer;
- Samuel Leibowitz’s 1930s defense of nine black Alabama teenagers, the Scottsboro Boys, accused of rape;
- Michael Tigar’s and Brian Hermanson’s representation of Terry Nichols in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case; and
- Lawyers’ contemporary efforts to represent Guantanamo detainees.

Law Day 2011 gives us all an opportunity to consider our legal system. During May, I expect lawyers throughout the state to be visiting with students and others to discuss the protection of our fundamental constitutional rights.

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