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R. I. Chief Justice Frank J. Williams (ret.)
Law Day Ceremony Remarks
Connecticut Supreme Court
May 1, 2009

Former R.I Chief Justice Frank J. WilliamsGood morning. I was delighted to be asked to speak with you today. Chief Justice Rogers, Associate Justices, distinguished members of the bench and bar, thank you for having me here to celebrate Law Day with you.  

For 220 years, the judicial branch has been an anchor in the friction and abrasion of what Abraham Lincoln called “the race of life.” The nation’s judicial landscape is replete with examples of how our courts consistently administer justice with steadfast honor and unwavering independence.

Though we are separated by geography, all of us are tied together by the shared thread of public service and united by a common mission – the administration of equal justice.

You know, even though there are 30,000 state and federal judges in our nation’s civil and criminal courts – including about 200 state judges here in Connecticut – sometimes it is hard to look at the road ahead and not feel isolated, overwhelmed by the challenges that seem to wait around every bend. It is the loneliness of command, which I am sure many of you have felt. There is never enough money, there is never enough time, there is never enough help. And yet, there are so many waiting at our doors, seeking refuge in the shelter of justice.  Some days it is almost impossible to see how we can take care of all of them – simply to “do” justice.  And with 10,000 lawyers in Connecticut, I am not sure you have enough. Can we get a few more admitted to the Bar or what?

We hear lots of talk about “caseloads,” but we should all understand that our decisions have an impact on real people’s lives. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but this whole task of judging revolves around courage – your courage. The key questions of the judiciary have been: Who has political courage? Who’s willing to fight? Who has the resolve to lead in challenging times?

As we celebrate this year the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, I must tell you that, for me, he has always exemplified the foundations of our society: character, leadership, justice and a commitment to excellence in whatever one endeavored. He was imbued with political courage.

We live in an increasingly negative culture.  We cannot allow the detractors and the naysayers to undermine the delicate balance that has been crafted among the branches of government.

As Lincoln said to the Congress and the American people during the Civil War, “It is not can any of us imagine better. But can we all do better? … The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

Lincoln would have made a great judge.  In fact, as an attorney he often filled in for a judge on the old Eighth Judicial Circuit, a common practice back then when judges were called away. One of the few lawyers to consider Lincoln as a judge, author John J. Duff, noted in A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer,

[Lincoln’s] “intellectual integrity; his capacity for analysis and balanced decision; his practical, hardheaded approach to legal problems; his ability to strip away trivia and get to the heart of a matter; his sensitive consideration of others and his profound insight into the deep recesses of the human mind and heart, coupled with the gift of expressing himself in plain and pointed and unequivocal language, were precisely the essentials for success on the bench—in Lincoln’s day or any other day.  And if ever the expression ‘judicial temperament’ applied to anyone, it was Lincoln, whose simple dignity and infinite patience, even under great provocation, were impressive credentials.  Judges like this don’t grow on trees.”


I think most people fail to make the distinction between law and justice. The distinction should not be lost, or mistakenly seen as quibbling over mere semantics. Law, after all, is merely those rules written by the legislature. Justice is based on the relationships among people, and is certainly not just the rules.

One who understood this was the late U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson. Raised in the northern hills of Alabama, Judge Johnson did much to see to justice in an era where his part of the South clung to the prejudices of the past. He once reflected on this era by saying: “The civilizing function of a judge has been defined, I think, as ‘the removal of a sense of injustice.’ I have come to the firm conclusion that the American people revere the concept of justice, and their conscience tells them to obey the law once they understand what it is.”

Lincoln’s law practice reflected his Whig philosophy, which preferred settlement of disputes in the interest of community order.  He believed in alternative dispute resolution before that phrase was coined.  A colleague stated that he heard Lincoln tell would-be clients again and again: “You have no case; better settle.”  In fact, about 33% of Lincoln’s more than 5,500 cases were dismissed and many of those can be attributed to settlement or mediation.  He learned to detach himself from the issues, and, like every good negotiator, seek out a middle ground between adversaries.  This attribute would prove immensely important during his presidency.

Lincoln’s philosophy of settlement in the interest of community order, applied time and time again throughout his legal career, manifested itself in his second inaugural address.  After four years of bloody and costly war, he asked the nation to treat the South during the impending peace “[w]ith malice toward none, with charity for all … to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne battle….” 

Moreover, he demanded liberal treatment of vanquished Confederate forces.  We are reminded again of his second inaugural address: “…let us judge not, that we be not judged.”  And it was General Robert E. Lee himself who commented, “I surrendered as much to Lincoln’s goodness as I did to Grant’s armies.”

As a practicing attorney, Lincoln was also well known for his honesty and integrity: remember the nickname “Honest Abe.”  He once declared, “… I mean to put a case no stronger than the truth will allow.”  In one instance, after meeting with a potential client, Lincoln told the man, “Yes, there is no reasonable doubt but that I can gain your case for you; I can set a whole neighborhood at loggerheads; I can distress a widowed mother and her six fatherless children, and thereby get for you six hundred dollars which you seem to have a legal claim to; but which rightfully belongs, it appears to me, as much to the woman and her children as it does to you.  You must remember some things that are legal right are not morally right.  I shall not take your case—but I will give you a little advice for which I charge you nothing.  You seem to be a sprightly, energetic man, I would advise you to try your hand at making six hundred dollars in some other way.”

In another instance, the trial was proceeding poorly for Mrs. Goings, charged with murdering her abusive husband.  Her attorney, Abraham Lincoln called for a recess to confer with his client, and he led her from the courtroom.  When court reconvened, and Mrs. Goings could not be found, Lincoln was accused of advising her to flee, a charge he vehemently denied.  He explained, however, that the defendant had asked him where she could get a drink of water, and he had pointed out that Tennessee had darn good water!  She was never seen against in Illinois!

The case illustrates that ethics, like sand, keep shifting over time.  Lincoln couldn’t have done what he did with Goings today.  When we judge history or historic individuals, we need to look at the events and the persons within the context of the times in which the events occurred and the individuals lived—and not through the wrong end of the telescope.  With no rules of professional conduct, the lawyer’s priority was to DO ALL for the client.  Yet Lincoln was not oblivious to ethics.  As he so eloquently stated, “resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. 

As it turned out, the charge against Mrs. Goings was dismissed nearly one year later on the state attorney’s motion.

Above the bench of the Rhode Island Supreme Court is a Latin inscription that translates as “Not under Man but under God and Law.” It is a reminder that our system of justice operates on the rule of law, not in response to a “gotcha” news media or on the basis of public opinion or personality.

Commenting on the power of colonial lawyers at the time of our revolution, Edmund Burke declared: “This study [of law] renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources.  No other profession is more closely connected with actual life than the law.  It concerns the highest of all temporal interests of man—property, reputation, the peace of all families, the arbitrations and peace of nations, liberty, life even, and the very foundations of society.”  It was from this mold that Lincoln was formed. Burke understood the interplay of legal training and political practice.  Lincoln’s life perfected the mold.  There is much evidence for celebrating Lincoln as a triumphant lawyer and wartime president.

Thank you.

Remarks by Chief Justice Rogers



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