Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

It’s Not Chiseled in Granite! — Or Is It?

How often have we heard or said the above quote?  Its meaning is clear. It connotes that the particular principle of which it is said may not always be controlling or applicable.  Logic therefore suggests that when something is, in fact, “chiseled in granite” it is a universally recognized rule and always and forever applicable.

Take for example the words chiseled in granite on the United States Supreme Court building, EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW.  Few judges or lawyers, as well as few Americans, would argue that the principle expressed in those words is not a universally recognized rule which is always and forever applicable.  But, as it turns out, that principle could be in jeopardy.

In an address to the House of Delegates at the recent midyear meeting of the ABA, association President Stephen N. Zack discussed his personal view of those words: 612w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />And I looked up and I saw four words: equal justice under law. And I asked myself, what does that mean? And what it means is that we promise all Americans they will have equal justice under law. And that is a promise that today is in jeopardy.

Equal justice under law is what it says. It doesn’t say equal justice for the rich, for the powerful, for the momentary majority, because that majority changes from moment to moment, and eventually we are all part of the minority. Equal justice means access. We are fighting around the world for the rule of law. The rule of law exists because of access. We have a justice gap in this country. Eighty percent of poor people have no access to the courts: Eighty percent, mostly minority and poor people.

Zack went on to relate a personal experience as a boy:

A lot of you know that those four words I take very personally because to me and my family, the loss of liberty was not a theoretical exercise. It occurred to us. We came here in ’61 from Cuba. I believe all of you know that. Some of you may not know about the last night I had in Cuba. And I was with my grandfather, and I said, “How do you feel?” He said, “You know, I feel very sad. I’ve lost everything; everything I’ve worked my entire life for. But I feel good about one thing.” I said, “How, how? How could you feel good about anything on a night like tonight?” He said, “I feel good that I’m going to the United States. And I know I’ll never be a refugee again, because if the United States falls, there’ll be no place to go.”

The “jeopardy” that President Zack identified in his House of Delegates remarks would be upon us as a direct consequence of passage of recently introduced federal legislation that would cut funding for The Legal Services Corporation by 28 percent. There are other proposals that would eliminate The Legal Services Corporation altogether. The Legal Services Corporation is a major source of funding to support delivery of civil legal services to poor or low-income citizens who cannot otherwise afford to protect their rights, property, and liberty.

As Zack pointed out, Sandra Day O’Connor probably said it better than anybody when she said,

“In every society, there must be a safe place. And in America, that safe place is our justice system, our courts.”

Those four words over the columns on the front of our nation’s highest court don’t derive their importance because a skilled artisan chiseled them. They are important because the United States Constitution mandates a justice system that exists to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority, a safe place where every citizen can go for “Equal Justice Under Law.”  They are a promise—a universally recognized rule, applicable always and forever.

A tweet following President Zack’s remarks summed it up rather nicely:

Slashing funds that keep working class and poor people from falling into a legal and financial tailspin is not the right decision in this economy. Every cent spent helping families deal with crises such as eviction, child support and custody, or a domestic violence restraining order ultimately saves taxpayer money. Financial and emotional costs grow when problems go unsolved.

In previous columns I have described lawyers as the “gatekeepers” of access to justice. President Zack describes us as “foot soldiers” in the same cause.  Regardless, a delegation from Minnesota will be present on Capitol Hill in April during ABA Days to join with others in fighting to protect the promise of “Equal Justice Under Law”; after all, “it’s chiseled in granite.”


Leave a Reply

Terry Votel

Terry Votel was the 2010-11 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The division attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department of Farmers Insurance Group, he practices in the area of insurance defense. He received his J.D. degree from William Mitchell College of Law.