The journey of the Magna Carta from a peace treaty between rebellious barons and a corrupt king to the current system of justice in the U.S. followed two parallel evolutionary paths, including one in which executive power was increasingly constrained and another in which the rights of individuals were expanded, former Congressman Brian N. Baird, Ph.D., told members of the Chattanooga Bar Association (CBA) last Friday during its annual Law Day luncheon at the Convention Center.
Baird’s address was part of the CBA’s celebration of Law Day 2015, which included a morning event for local high school seniors at Girls Preparatory School and the announcement during the luncheon of this year’s Liberty Bell Award recipient.
Law Day is set aside each year on May 1 by a joint resolution of Congress and presidential proclamation as an occasion to reflect on the role of law in the foundation of the U.S. and to recognize its importance for society. The theme of Law Day 2015 was “Magna Carta: Symbol of Freedom Under Law.”
Lynda Hood, executive director of the CBA, provided the opening remarks, saying, “The Magna Carta has come to embody a simple but enduring truth: no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law. In the eight centuries that have elapsed since the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215, it’s taken root as an international symbol of the rule of law and as an inspiration for many basic rights Americans hold dear today.”
Baird, a six-term Congressman from the State of Washington, joined Hood in bringing the impact of the Magna Carta forward to today, saying it’s important for people to understand that, like the Magna Carta, “laws are not immutable, but must be improved upon.”
The former Congressman spoke of three challenges lawmakers face in undertaking this formidable task: the rapid pace of change in society; the ongoing exclusion of specific groups in society; and the expansion and protection of human rights.
“The pace of change in our society is outrunning the ability of elected officials to track the issues,” Baird said. “We’re going to have to solve this. One way to do that is to provide more intellectual horsepower to our judicial and legislative branches.”
Concerning the ongoing exclusion of specific groups in society, Baird said “the documents we revere did leave people out, and these people are continuing to be left out. In our society today, there are inequities in access to legal recourse ... [and] gross discrepancies in economic opportunities. We’re going to have to wrestle with that.”
Equally important is the direction in which society moves with regard to human rights, Baird added. “The discussion of same sex marriages is part of a long tradition,” he said. “I’m sure many of you followed the Supreme Court arguments, which asked many of the same questions people once asked about anti-miscegenation laws.”
Next, Baird spoke about the importance of integrity in law and politics, a topic on which he is considered an expert.
“Sticking to your idea no matter what is not integrity. People will sometimes criticize a politician for changing his vote, but sometimes, the right thing is to change your vote. And sometimes, the right thing is to change your vote knowing you’ll lose the next election if you do. That’s integrity. Integrity is a willingness to pay a price to do the right thing,” he said.
“There’s also the importance of humility. Too many people in politics are saying, ‘I know all of the answers,’ rather than, ‘What is the other side saying? What are the counterfactuals? Is there a different source of information?’” he said. “Reinstating a commitment to evidence at every level of government is essential to our prosperity. The issues are too complicated and the challenges too great for one side to have all of the answers.”
While Baird said the challenges the country faces could be considered “depressing,” he believes there are “bright lights” on the horizon - the youth of today.
“The heritage of these documents is only as valuable as the people who will carry the torch forward. Earlier today, I had the opportunity to speak with some of those people. You should be proud of them. As we spoke about the Magna Carta, and the Constitution, and the issues our country is facing, they asked articulate, intelligent, informed, courageous, thought-provoking questions,” he said.
“That’s what Law Day is about. It’s about trying to understand the fundamental foundation of the law, not in the sense of memorizing the details of what each law does, but of having a deeper sense of what the law is about, why it matters, and how it affects our lives,” Baird said. “The young people I met this morning and those who are teaching them give me hope.”
Liberty Bell Award
Each year, the CBA honors an outstanding citizen with the Liberty Bell Award, given in recognition of community service that has strengthened the American system of freedom under the law. This year’s recipient is Dr. Patricia Skates, teacher at Ridgeland High School in Georgia and vice mayor of the City of Soddy Daisy.
Dr. Skates taught U.S. History and American Government for the Hamilton County Department of Education from 1988 to 2010, and currently teaches U.S. History and Economics at Ridgeland.
In announcing Dr. Skates as the recipient, attorney Sam Elliott highlighted the activities he said allows her students to “recognize their duties as well as their rights” and “contribute to the effective functioning of our institution of government.”
“She helped many of her 18 years old or older students register to vote, taking many of them to the Election Commission for that purpose,” he said. “She also encouraged her students to volunteer during elections.”
Dr. Skates has been on the Boards of Directors of the Tennessee Education Association and the Hamilton County Department of Education, among other leadership positions. A sample of the awards and honors she’s received include: the Department of Army Commanders Award for Public Service for her work with the ROTC program at Red Bank High School; National Career Academy Teacher of the Year in 2008; and Tennessee Humanities Teacher of the Year in 2009. That same year, the Tennessee Legislature honored Dr. Skates with a resolution for her civic accomplishments.
Dr. Skates said receiving the Liberty Bell Award was an honor. “One of my students once asked me why I volunteered to be a commissioner, to be vice-mayor, to be involved in things,” she said, tearing up. “I said I was brought up to do for others, and when I meet my Maker, I want Him to say I left more than I took.”
To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.