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THE LAST WORD by Linda A. Klein
Law Day and the 14th Amendment
What makes America great
is not military power, but its
fidelity to the rule of law,
which is the envy of billions
around the world.
Here are four legal puzzlers:
• An African American student wants to attend the
same school as white children. Can she?
• A man is charged with burglary, but he can’t afford
a lawyer. Should the state give him one for free?
• Two men pass a worthless check and are convicted
of misdemeanors. Can the state take away their right
to vote because of those convictions?
• Can states outlaw interracial marriage?
The answers are obvious—today. But that’s only
because we have the 14th Amendment to the United
States Constitution and nearly 150 years of Supreme
Court rulings interpreting it.
Most Americans have no idea what the 14th Amendment is or how it
affects their lives. But we do. And our job as lawyers is to defend individuals’ rights under the Constitution—and to explain that great document
to the public.
That’s the idea behind Law Day. Every year on May 1, lawyers across
the country engage their communities and rally behind the rule of law.
This year, the theme of Law Day was The 14th Amendment: Transforming American Democracy—one of the most-litigated but least-known of
all the constitutional amendments. And while Law Day itself has passed,
it’s never too late to celebrate and teach the principles that sustain our
For more than a century, the 14th Amendment has been the legal
basis for many major Supreme Court decisions, including those that
desegregated schools (Brown v. Board of Education) and ensured counsel for criminal defendants (Gideon v. Wainwright).
The first section of the Amendment—the part that’s most often liti-
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and sub-
ject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States
and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or
enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immuni-
ties of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive
any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of
law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal
protection of the laws.
“The reason we have the 14th Amendment,” said former U.S.
Solicitor General Ted Olson, “is to provide the courts with the
opportunity to override the will of the people when the will of the
people discriminates against a segment of our society.”
This year, lawyers, judges, and teachers across the country
engaged students, elected officials, and community leaders in Law
Day discussions of the amendment’s significance.
Law Day is celebrated in many ways. In Idaho, students created
podcasts. In Boston, lawyers visited classrooms. In Texas and
North Carolina, students wrote editorials,
snapped photos and created posters.
And in Washington, DC, the American
Bar Association sponsored two special events.
On May 1, a scholarly panel, led by Jeffrey
Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center, debated the 14th Amendment’s
role in transforming American democracy.
The next day, 150 high school students from
around the country discussed the ideas of
equal protection, due process and liberty
under the Amendment. I helped lead the
Law Day dates back to the heart of the
Cold War, nearly 60 years ago. In 1957,
ABA President Charles S. Rhyne watched
reports of the Soviet Union’s annual May
Day celebration in Moscow’s Red Square,
with its massive displays of military might.
He thought that what made America great
was not military power, but its fidelity to the
rule of law.
Rhyne asked President Dwight Eisenhower to issue the first Law Day proclamation, declaring that “guaranteed fundamental rights of individuals under the law is the
heart and sinew of our Nation.” It has been
a presidential tradition ever since.
Today, it often seems that we are a nation
divided, but there is one thing that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agree
on: The American rule of law is the envy of
billions around the world.
So let’s celebrate and spread the word.
The U.S. Constitution is America’s greatest
creation. It is worth defending and teaching—on Law Day and every day.
LINDA A. KLEIN is president of
the American Bar Association and
a senior managing shareholder at
Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell
& Berkowitz, based in Atlanta.