I shook hands with Thomas Jefferson this week. We met just before he debated his old nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, at the Kentucky Bar Association's annual convention. It was a most timely encounter, as the convention theme was "Honoring our past, preparing for our future."
Looking amazingly fit, the two men gave spirited defenses of their respective philosophies of governance: Hamilton, federal supremacy combined with a strong central government; Jefferson, a decentralized system with more power to the states. Sound familiar?
The lesson for today is that, despite their conflict, each realized the other had the same objective: a strong and secure nation. They also agreed that education was the key to our success, that we need to learn and remember where we have been in order to chart where we are going.
The convention only got better. Each of the 60 sessions addressed the mission of improving professional competence and the overall administration of our judicial system. Topics addressed were:
Elder care. With a rapidly aging population the need to protect elders from abuse and to properly plan for their care grows more important.
Child welfare. Poverty and drug abuse are destroying families and necessitating evermore legal protection for abused and neglected children. For older at-risk children, collaboration is much more effective than zero tolerance as a way to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
Domestic relations. We studied techniques for providing better service in family court, protections of benefits for domestic partnerships and mediation as an alternative to contentious legal actions.
Judicial integrity. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner promoted the practice of merit selection of judges as opposed to elections in order to protect judicial independence and impartiality.
Technology. The focus was on how lawyers can use, but not abuse, such tools as social media and electronically stored information.
Criminal law reform. We reviewed better options to reduce prison populations while ensuring public safety: bail reform, probation and parole changes, and distinguishing between high-volume drug traffickers and low-volume peddlers.
Attorney competence. There were workshops on brief-writing, cross-examination, closing arguments and trial advocacy.
However, the convention did raise some controversial questions.
First, I asked Hamilton and Jefferson — both of whom had wailed about our national debt — what they would do about it. Sadly, these faux founders reverted to 21st-century form by failing to offer the slightest hint of a solution.
However, I did: cut expenditures by means-testing Medicare and Social Security, reduce military spending, eliminate fruitless subsidies and financial corruption, close tax loopholes and raise taxes, particularly on upper-income citizens. It was shameful, I added, that a lack of resources should force the closing of our judicial system for three days this fall as well as the termination of the successful drug court. They nodded politely.
The second question came at the end, after the showing of Nuremburg: Its Lesson for Today. Sandra Schulberg masterfully restored the 1948 film of the Nuremburg Trials by her father, Stuart Schulberg. Before the film, she and University of North Dakota law professor Gregory S. Gordon discussed how Hitler had combined dictatorial power with lie-filled propaganda to dehumanize his targets and fuel his war-making machine.
The movie closed with this quote by Justice Robert Jackson, America's chief prosecutor: "This trial ... is a step to ensure that those who start a war will pay for it personally."
A question hit me like a shot out of a cannon: Just when we would apply this lesson, as well as international law, to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for waging their wrongful war in Iraq?
Gordon said this was unlikely, as the U.S. has never ratified the International Criminal Court treaty. Right or wrong, he said, Realpolitik meant that "might makes right."
While true, this was a most unsatisfactory conclusion to an event dedicated to the pursuit of truth, justice and the rule of law. But that is OK, for it serves as a reminder that as far as we've come in our great nation, we have farther still to go.