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Rants & Reason

Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain

5/3/2017

Happy Law Day! Even if you didn’t celebrate Law Day on May 1, there is time to do so now. Law Day, like The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and other meaningful holidays, merits commemoration. When it comes to Law Day, however, praise and appreciation aren’t the first things that may come to mind. Some prefer to quote Dick the butcher in Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

They would take that as 1591 wisdom about the bane of the legal profession. But what Dick and Jack Cade the rebel wanted to do was to rid England of the law that prevented their grabbing power. (Dick the butcher might find a soul mate in Donald Trump who is upset when the law, judges and lawyers won’t let him do what he wants.)

For reverence of the law, however, consider Sir Thomas More, executed for treason by Henry VIII in 1535 because he wouldn’t recognize Henry as head of the church. In the play “A Man for all Seasons,” there’s an exchange between More and his obstinate son-in-law, Will Roper:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

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Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast…and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Despite More’s insight, given the handiwork of the 2017 legislature, many Iowans might find a soulmate in Mr. Bumble from “Oliver Twist.” That’s because — when it comes to Bumble’s domineering wife — a court says, “…the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.” A flabbergasted Mr. B says, “The law is a ass — a idiot.”

Such a take on laws that defy common sense calls to mind Iowa legislators who say courts would uphold their right to not pay their fair share of health insurance premiums — just as legislators also have a right to legalize fireworks, bust unions and offer irresponsible and budget-busting tax credits to businesses.

Ideally, the nature of law trusts us to treat one another ethically and act with common sense — because such behavior often cannot be legislated.

And our law also expects people to be watchdogs of their government. It is after all, a government of the people. That’s why the Iowa motto proclaims, “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.”

The motto was adopted in 1847, a year after statehood, and eight years after the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa ruled In the Matter of Ralph that Ralph, a slave from Missouri, did not have to be returned to his “owner.” That was the first in a series of landmark decisions in which the Iowa judiciary recognized civil rights that other states and the nation itself would take decades, and even a century, to protect.

Iowa, of all states, should take pride in Law Day. About 10 states recognize law, justice or liberty in their state mottos. In recent years, however, the Iowa legislature and governor have been far more attuned to the worst aspects of Tennessee’s uninspired motto, “Agriculture and Commerce” than in preserving “Our Liberties…and our rights…”

The idea for Law Day was advanced in 1957 by the American Bar Association (ABA) and established a year later by President Eisenhower. The ABA theme for Law Day 2017 is “The 14th Amendment: Transforming American Democracy,” which recognizes how the 1868 amendment extended the federal Bill of Rights to the states — you know, so the rest of the nation could catch up with what the Iowa judiciary had done for Iowans.

Happy Law Day! ♦

strentz21Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants & Reason column for CITYVIEW.

 

 

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