Are we really a “government of laws, not of men” as John Adams once famously said?
Several instances over the last few weeks reminded us clearly that it is the opinions of men and women that determine what the law means, who it should apply to and how it will be enforced.
I reported to the 19th Judicial District Court last Monday for jury duty, along with many of my fellow citizens, to comply with my summons and hopefully be excused from further service in short order. We all convened in the jury holding area and had the same looks on our faces and thoughts in our heads: that we would likely not be needed and we could get back to our daily grind in no time.
While many of my fellow jury duty invitees were in fact soon excused from service, I was one of the few selected. While not the result I was originally hoping for, I can tell you in hindsight that I left that experience in complete awe for a few reasons.
First, I found the court administrators, lawyers, and the judge handled the jury selection and trial process extremely professionally. They were well prepared, organized and took the time to explain the process clearly to us throughout the trial. Second, my fellow jury members sat through an intense and emotional trial and deliberated in a responsible and meticulous manner. They followed the court’s direction, listened to the evidence and were driven to a result solely by the facts and evidence shown. We walked into that room as strangers but departed as a team of citizens that had worked together to accomplish the task we had been given to deliver a judgment based upon the law. Lastly, the entire process reminded me how lucky we are to live in a nation governed by a constitution that contains several checks and balances to ensure the rights of the governed are protected and the powers of the government are limited.
While my recent involvement in the jury process was a personal reminder of the critical role men and women in our court system play in our daily lives, recent rulings by our Supreme Court remind us that one single vote by a man or woman can change or affirm the interpretation of our laws in an instant.
Much of discussion of late has been by those either in support or opposition to the decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges dealing with marriage, but in reality that was only one of several noteworthy decisions made by a one-person margin.
The ability to use certain drugs for lethal injection, the requirements for federal regulators to factor in economic impact when issuing new emission mandates, the process for determining Congressional district lines, the standard to prove discrimination in fair housing cases, a state’s ability to reject a flag depicted on a license plate, and how judicial candidates can ask for campaign contributions were all decided by one person’s vote on the Court.
One person decided how those laws were to be interpreted, to whom the law would apply and how it would be enforced.
Only two people made the voting difference on deciding the constitutionality of the Obamacare tax subsidies used in over 30 states, despite the seemingly plain language of that specific law to the contrary.
Our nation has always prided itself for having a Constitution that protects certain inalienable rights and a foundation in the law that governs our nation in a fair and peaceful manner.
This all began on July 4, 1776, when our Founding Fathers made the decision to seek their independence by declaring, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Our nation began by this brave decision by people, it has been defended over the years by the brave actions by more people, and it has become the most powerful nation on earth because of the innovative and courageous actions of people in the public and private sector over the last few centuries.
With apologies to John Adams, our people drive our American story just as much, if not more so, than the laws themselves.
We are a nation of people. They drafted our early laws, continue to enforce them, have amended them countless times through the years and define (and redefine) them to this day. We may proudly be a nation of laws, but we are in practice much more than that.
Not sure if this is what Adams envisioned, but a nation of men and women we most definitely are.