‘An attack on the rule of law itself’

I was asked to share my remarks from the wonderful Jefferson District Court Investiture ceremony Jan. 6. All of us — especially lawyers — need to stand between the governor’s and the president’s attacks and the judiciary. That’s the wall that matters.

“Mr. Chief Justice, Justice Hughes, distinguished guests, judges of the Jefferson District Court and especially your proud families:

May it please the Court: That song [“Amazing Grace,” sung by the West End Boys & Girls Choir] is so beautiful, and I don’t know that I’ve heard it sung more beautifully. Those young men and women are so talented. And so waiting to be inspired — by us. The song also reminds me that, sadly, we’ve gone from a time in which a president of the United States, at a funeral in Charleston, South Carolina, for victims of a shooting (one, a state legislator, a friend of his) was so moved by the spirit and dignity of the moment to sing that song, to sing “Amazing Grace,” unprompted and alone, without music and to the whole world… to a time in which both our president and governor conduct themselves without grace and as if the only things that move them are power, anger and insecurity.

This lack of grace, among other things, has allowed them both — and others who follow their examples — to attack the judiciary in unprecedented and immoral ways. This is not a political or partisan position. These attacks matter and are dangerous because they are intended to undermine the judiciary and the respect citizens would have for it. The criticism — from chief executives of our state and nation — is nothing less than an attack on the rule of law itself. Worse, the attacks on judges and the rule of law are borne of the most vile intentions — to convince voters, through a drumbeat of such criticism, that the judges don’t matter and the law doesn’t matter, in an effort to insulate themselves and accumulate the kind of power that can’t be questioned or judged.

Judges are hamstrung, somewhat, from defending themselves and the system from these attacks. It’s up to us, then, the rest of us, and especially the lawyers, to respond and to repel every attack on our system and its ministers, the judges. It’s up to us to ensure that every citizen — the real intended victims of these attacks — knows that this was decided for us a long time ago, and it has been the reason we have survived as a nation to this point: We are governed by the rule of law. No man or woman is above the law. Others have tried it differently, and they have always failed. You, the judges, protect those laws. You are the guardians of these temples, our halls of justice.

You wear robes because you are the priests and priestesses of these temples. That is why, among other things, you’re the only branch of our government for which there are, in fact, specific requirements. You must have studied the Constitution. You must have graduated from law school. You must be a member of our bar. Anyone can be governor. We know now that literally anyone can be president. And there is value in that, too. But this branch and your work…

…I wanna look to the sky and say this is the Lord’s work, but it is not. His kingdom is not of this world — He told us that. This is our work. Justice is a spiritual and moral concept that somehow, some way you have to make human and real. This isn’t science — there are no mathematical equations. It’s alchemy, and you are the alchemists creating something — something life-giving, something life-saving — out of nothing. Out of words on a paper and a usually barely intelligible set of facts or circumstances.

We are honored to have justices here from our Supreme Court. The Court we call the highest court in our Commonwealth. I mean, in most cases you don’t even have a right to have them hear your case. You have to ask them — petition them, literally — even for them to take your case. They are the last word in our state’s most-complicated and legally-challenging disputes. And we have representatives from all of the other levels of our judiciary here, too. All charged with the difficult task of applying the law to the endless variety of facts and cases before them.

The district court, though. It’s called the lowest court. In many places, these courts literally reside on the ground floor, while the circuit courts sit, physically, in courtrooms built above them, up the stairs.

But it’s here, in the district court, that the real, daily work of justice is done. It’s here where most citizens in our democracy will come face to face with the only judge they’ll ever have in their entire lives.

And here’s why that’s especially important, in a way not usually recognized: Mahatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” We are at a time in this nation in which our weakest — the poor, the different, the troubled — are treated by prevailing political leadership as if they are a burden. And worse, that their poverty and suffering is their own fault, for which they should be blamed, and that the great resources of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history shouldn’t be wasted upon these lesser, unaccomplished, examples of human failure. This isn’t just a Republican problem. For decades now, the Democratic Party has moved heaven and Earth to brand itself as the champion of the working class and something called middle America. But these labels are quite specifically intended to exclude the poor from their definitions. The poor don’t vote. The poor don’t make campaign contributions. The poor and disenfranchised are too busy trying to survive to organize or knock on doors. In the political calculus, then, they simply don’t exist. Even my president, Barack Obama, according to a study in which presidential statements were analyzed going back many years, used the word “poverty” fewer times than any of his predecessors.

This is more than a political problem. It’s a moral failure. But here in this room, here taking their oaths today, are the civil servants, the elected officials, whose doors are and, in fact, have to, remain open to all, including and especially the poor. Songwriter Todd Snider sang “nobody suffers like the poor people suffer,” and their suffering is laid on your bench in district court every single morning, every single afternoon and even some nights. Most, of course, don’t want to be there. Many are at the end of their ropes. Some are effectively helpless and broke. Many spend a good portion of their lives in other government offices, seeking, usually, assistance, in all of its different forms.

But they seek something else in your courtroom, even though most probably wouldn’t put it this way — they seek justice. Not the justice that moves the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, not the justice from a jury that compensates a severely injured plaintiff in circuit court, but justice all the same — by their presence and in their cases they bring you the real unvarnished lives of our fellow citizens, the great masses of our community in all of its bloody, angry, tearful, desperate, puke-stained glory. You, really, are representatives of our Statue of Liberty, arms open wide saying, “Give me your poor and your storm-tossed.” And in the midst of the crowded dockets and the noise and even, sometimes, the smell of the real world that only you among all of these judges and justices see, you’re tasked with giving life to a concept — justice — that otherwise floats in the ether like an unknowable but benevolent ghost.

I had the honor of clerking for Frank Haddad the entire time I was in law school. He told me this about juries: Don’t assume you can ask them to know what justice would be in any case. That’s too hard. And it can change. But, he said, they — each of them — will know what is unjust. And they’ll try to prevent that.

I stand here before an army of judges, the defenders of the rule of law. And you, the district court judges, are on the front lines, in the trenches, with the least time, least amount of law and guidance to help you and with by far the greatest impact upon this community’s respect for a system that ceases to exist without the rule of law. Your court is really our court and, more than that, it’s her court and his court too: The citizens, rich and poor, who have been summoned to appear before you and who will leave, possibly unhappily, but hopefully with an appreciation that here, in this branch of our government, they were in fact treated with respect as a citizen, no matter how flawed, poor, or afraid.

It starts here. And beginning here, this respect — this idea that no citizen enters our courtrooms better or worse than another simply because of their race, their wealth or their position in society is glorious. And it may be the single characteristic that most clearly and importantly separates this branch of government from the others. When the arrogant and pandering politicians of our time demean and intentionally undermine the judiciary and our courts, they forget — or perhaps this is their intention — that as goes the rule of law, so goes our country. And, to paraphrase another Kentuckian, government of the people, by the people and for the people will perish from the Earth.

Thank you for your service and congratulations. Good luck. For all of us.” •

Marc Murphy is a Louisville trial attorney, the editorial cartoonist for the Courier Journal and a contributor to LEO.