Randall T. Shepard
A reporter once asked Alan Greenspan what he thought had led to the long-term success of this country. He was a good person to ask, as the legendary and enduring chair of the Federal Reserve.
One assumption built into the question, of course, was an issue we still debate: just how successful has the United States been? To be sure, our country still has issues on which we have not been altogether successful, like race relations and equal opportunity.
Still, I’ll affirm the overall rating of our success by saying that the United States of America has created more opportunity and more security for people from more walks of life than any other nation in the whole history of humankind.
So, what’s been the secret of our success?
When I was in grade school, we all thought the answer was easy. America had been blessed by an abundance of natural resources which could be turned to the benefit of its citizenry. Plenty of superb farmland, abundant water resources, lots of minerals. Surely that was the answer. But it wasn’t the answer Greenspan gave.
In later years, quite a different explanation for American success became popular. By virtue of the Constitution, we had promoted the free flow of people and goods from sea to shining sea, and we had done it something like two hundred years before six European countries created the Common Market. This freedom of movement in our vast country had made growth and commerce so much easier than it would have been if we had struggled with fifty state borders and taxes and permission required for crossing. But that wasn’t Greenspan’s answer either.
Greenspan said the secret to our success was America’s commitment to the Rule of Law. That feature of our country’s experience meant that all sorts of things in life would go better.
It meant that we would have reliable ways of redressing grievances. If you made an agreement or a contract with someone and your partner reneged, there would be a way to enforce the agreement. It meant that someone who was injured by the negligence of another would have a way to seek compensation. It meant that the interests of individuals in fields like family and property could be enforced.
Making all of this real and workable has been the special mission of the legal profession – lawyers and judges and their associates – and it is the reason why Law Day is worth celebrating. It is a cause that matters nearly every day of our lives.
Sustaining this part of American life is a special part of why the bench and bar put our shoulder to the wheel. I’ll mention here two aspects of the Rule of Law that make it still an important element of our national success. One is visibility and participation. The other is the capacity for reform.
As for visibility, let’s talk about ease of access and public participation. One dramatic achievement in Indiana has been to provide access through electronics. How can people learn about cases in which they are involved? How can they conduct certain business tasks without going to a courthouse? How do we make judicial elections and retention votes more visible? How do we make juries more inclusive? These have all been projects in which Indiana’s bench and bar have been engaged.
As for these reforms and others, Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush recently declared in her virtual State of the Judiciary address, “Complacency can never be the norm in providing justice.”
In a field like incarceration, for example, Indiana has been way ahead of the pack in examining who needs to be held before trial, a topic very prominent on our national agenda at present. Not only has Indiana revamped pre-trial procedures for adults, its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has addressed the individual situations and needs of young people who are caught up in the system for one reason or another.
Likewise, Indiana has created more than 125 courts with specialized dockets and tools to solve problems like drug addiction, family disruptions, and the special difficulties faced by veterans, to name a few.
And lawyers and bar associations have been at work helping citizens who confront the possibility of mortgage foreclosure or eviction. They also periodically organize “ask a lawyer” opportunities for citizens who are wondering just where to begin. Thousands of lawyers volunteer their time to represent people who cannot otherwise afford legal assistance.
These sorts of efforts have been close to the hearts of Indiana’s legal players, and that fact has made it much easier to deal with the crisis of the pandemic. From devising new techniques for conducting jury trials to examples like Evansville moving its high-volume cases to the city’s convention center where social distancing is more feasible, the legal system has adapted.
All of these efforts are part of what makes our nation stronger, affirming Alan Greenspan’s idea that American commitment to the Rule of Law has been so crucial to our collective success as a society.
Randall T. Shepard is a part of the Evansville Bar Association editorial board and a former Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court. He has written this piece in celebration of Law Day, which is observed annually on May 1.