Our democracy is in crisis. The January 6 insurrection leaves no doubt that the Great Experiment of the American Republic is a fragile creation that must be protected if it is to survive. The very core of our system of government – the right to vote and the right to have that vote properly counted – is under attack in far too many States. Gun violence has become a plague throughout the country – with deranged individuals and fanatical groups expressing their political views with guns in lieu of the ballot box. Plans to murder U.S. Supreme Court Justices or to kidnap a sitting governor have become real dangers to public servants who have sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. As I write this, I am deeply saddened by the deaths, injuries and trauma inflicted by a gunman who emptied an assault rifle onto a July 4th parade outside of Chicago. The act of celebrating our Independence Day is one of the few times that we can all come together as a unified nation, regardless of political views and beliefs. The tragic deaths on July 4, 2022 in Highland Park, Illinois are a grim reminder that our democracy is under attack.
While once Americans banded together when faced with world wars waged by dictators and emperors, our Nation seems to have lost the ability to unite in times of crisis. Americans have turned scientific evidence into something that can be manipulated for purposes of political debate. Politics in the United States has become so divisive that steps to minimize deaths from a pandemic spawned a debate between an individual’s right not to wear a mask or to take a vaccine and what steps Government may implement to stop a global pandemic. That phenomena was caused in substantial part from Americans no longer trusting the press – one of the historical cornerstones of democracy. Fake news has become real and undercuts our ability to come together when faced with adversity.
Our Nation, however, has overcome past threats to democracy and to the rights and freedoms we cherish. The United States was torn apart during the Civil War but somehow survived brother fighting brother on American soil. That dark period of American history brought forth a new light and new beginning for our country – the abolition of slavery. McCarthyism produced a witch-hunt for communist sympathizers and a blatant attack on the LGBTQ community, but truth ultimately prevailed. Today, the name Joe McCarthy is reviled and connotes an abuse of power based on lies and half-truths. The United States has survived wars, economic crises, the Ku Klux Klan, the Spanish flu and the brink of nuclear holocaust. In such times of crisis, democracy is vulnerable to extremism. For nearly roughly 250 years, however, the ship of American democracy has always been righted before going down.
The judiciary stands as the branch of government that must be immune from misinformation, public sentiment, political views and personal aspirations. We are all bound by a pledge that our Nation must be governed “with liberty and justice for all.” Francis Bellamy, The Youth's Companion (1892) (the Pledge of Allegiance). During the present crisis, our judiciary is the one institution that can best fulfill that pledge to protect the rights of voters, the countless Americans who feel that they no longer have a voice in this democracy, and the individual rights protected by the Constitution, our statutes and the rule of law.
Although I am saddened by the divisiveness of American politics and the threats to our democracy, I am deeply confident that our judiciary will protect our democracy and the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution – regardless of whether those decisions may be unpopular. See Jack Bass, Unlikely Heroes (1981). It has been my great pleasure to serve as the Chair of ABA Judicial Division for the past year. That opportunity has put me working with judges from throughout the country on issues that impact our judiciary. That experience has allowed me to see first-hand the caliber and commitment of judges throughout the United States. As a result, I am confident that our courts are up to the task of defending and preserving our democratic form of government. To our judges, thank you for being on the front lines in protecting our democracy. Let us all pray, however, that the crisis that our Nation faces comes to an end soon.
Stay safe, stay healthy and stay committed to serving justice.