Carter's Law Day Speech
The excerpts of the following speech were taken from the Jimmy Carter Library (See full transcript here). In May of 1974, then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter gave a"Law Day" address at the University of Georgia before Senator Edward Kennedy, several prominent Georgia attorneys and law students.
I recently heard some of this speech in a brilliant documentary about Hunter S. Thompson, “Gonzo.” (Excerpts of this speech can also be found in Thompson's The Great Shark Hunt).
Carter's topics: Bob Dylan, homemade cookies, Dr. King, peanut farming, nuclear physics, the Wright Bros, commitment to the status quo, Tolstoy, Napoleon, and Thomas Jefferson.
…I'm not qualified to talk to you about law, because in addition to being a peanut farmer, I'm an engineer and a nuclear physicist, not a lawyer. I was planning, really, to talk to you more today about politics, and the inter-relationship of political affairs and law, than about what I'm actually going to speak on. But after Senator Kennedy's delightful and very fine response to political questions during his speech, and after his analysis of the Watergate problems, I stopped at a room on the way, while he had his press conference, and I changed my speech notes.
My own interest in the criminal justice system is very deep and heartfelt. Not having studied law, I've had to learn the hard way. I read a lot and listen a lot. One of the sources for my understanding about the proper application of criminal justice and the system of equity is from reading Reinhold Niebuhr, one of his books that Bill Gunter gave me quite a number of years ago. The other source of my understanding about what's right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about "The Ballad of Hattie Carol" and "Like a Rolling Stone" and "The Times, They Are a-Changing," I've learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.
I grew up as a landowner's son. But I don't think I ever realized the proper interrelationship between the landowner and those who worked on a farm until I heard Dylan's record, "I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More." So I come here speaking to you today about your subject with a base for my information founded on Reinhold Niebuhr and Bob Dylan.
One of the things that Niebuhr says is that the sad duty of the political system is to establish justice in a sinful world. He goes on to say that there's no way to establish or maintain justice without law; that the laws are constantly changing to stabilize the social equilibrium of the forces and counterforces of a dynamic society; and that the law in its totality is an expression of the structure of government…
…I would like to talk to you for few moments about some of the practical aspects of being a governor who is still deeply concerned about the inadequacies of a system of which it is obvious that you're so patently proud. I have refrained completely from making any judicial appointments on the basis of political support or other factors, and have chosen, in every instance, Superior Court judges, quite often state judges, Appellate Court judges, on the basis of merit analysis by a highly competent, open, qualified group of distinguished Georgians. I'm proud of this…
…I don't know exactly how to say this, but I was thinking just a few moments ago about some of the things that are of deep concern to me as a governor. As a scientist, I was working constantly, along with almost everyone who professes that dedication of life, to probe, probe every day of my life for constant changes for the better. It's completely anachronistic in the make-up of a nuclear physicist or an engineer or scientist to be satisfied with what we've got, or to rest on the laurels of past accomplishments. It's the nature of the profession.
As a farmer, the same motivation persists. Every farmer that I know of, who is worth his salt or who's just average, is ahead of the experimental stations and research agronomist in finding better ways, changing ways to plant, cultivate, utilize herbicides, gather, cure, sell farm products. The competition for innovation is tremendous, equivalent to the realm of nuclear physics, even.
In my opinion, it's different in the case of lawyers. And maybe this is a circumstance that is so inherently true that it can't be changed.
I'm a Sunday school teacher, and I've always known that the structure of law is founded on a Christian ethic that you shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself - a very high and perfect standard. We all know the fallibility of man, and the contentions in society, as described by Reinhold Niebuhr, and many others, don't permit us to achieve perfection. We do strive for equality, but not with a fervent and daily commitment. In general, the powerful and the influential in our society shape the laws and have a great influence on the legislature or the Congress. This creates a reluctance to change because the powerful and the influential have carved out for themselves or have inherited a privileged position in society, of wealth or social prominence or higher education or opportunity for the future. Quite often, those circumstances are circumvented at a very early age because college students, particularly undergraduates, don't have any commitment to the preservation of the way things are. But later, as their interrelationship with the present circumstances grows, they also become committed to approaching change very, very slowly and very, very cautiously, and there's a commitment to the status quo…
…I remember when I was a child, I lived on a farm about 3 miles from Plains, and we didn't have electricity or running water. We lived on the railroad - Seaboard Coastline Railroad. Like all farm boys, I had a flip, a slingshot. They had stabilized the railroad bed with little white round rocks, which I used for ammunition. I would go out frequently to the railroad and gather the most perfectly shaped rocks of proper size. I always had a few in my pockets, and I had others cached away around the farm, so that they would be convenient if I ran out of my pocket supply.
One day I was leaving the railroad track with my pockets full of rocks and hands full of rocks, and my mother came out on the front porch - this is not a very interesting story but it illustrates a point - and she had in her hands a plate full of cookies that she had just baked for me. She called me - I am sure with love in her heart - and said, "Jimmy, I've baked some cookies for you." I remember very distinctly walking up to her and standing there for 15 or 20 seconds in honest doubt about whether I should drop those rocks which were worthless and take the cookies that my mother had prepared for me, which between her and me were very valuable….
…Quite often, we have the same inclination in our everyday lives. We don't recognize that change can sometimes be very beneficial, although we fear it. Anyone who lives in the South looks back on the last 15 to 20 years with some degree of embarrassment, including myself…
…Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was perhaps despised by many in this room because he shook up our social structure that benefited us, and demanded simply that black citizens be treated the same as white citizens, wasn't greeted with approbation and accolades by the Georgia Bar Association or the Alabama Bar Association. He was greeted with horror. Still, once that change was made, a very simple but difficult change, no one in his right mind would want to go back to circumstances prior to that juncture in the development of our nation's society…
I don't want to go on and on; I'm part of it. But the point I want to make to you is that we still have a long way to go. In every age or every year, we have a tendency to believe that we've come so far now, that there's no way to improve the present system. I'm sure when the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, they felt that was the ultimate in transportation. When the first atomic bomb was exploded, that was the ultimate development in nuclear physics, and so forth.
Well, we haven't reached the ultimate. But who's going to search the heart and soul of an organization like yours or a law school or state or nation and say, "What can we still do to restore equity and justice or to preserve it or to enhance it in this society?" You know, I'm not afraid to make the change. I don't have anything to lose. But, as a farmer, I'm not qualified to assess the characteristics of the 9,100 inmates in the Georgia prisons, 50 percent of whom ought not to be there. They ought to be on probation or under some other supervision and assess what the results of previous court rulings might bring to bear on their lives.
I was in the governor's mansion for 2 years, enjoying the services of a very fine cook, who was a prisoner - a woman. One day she came to me, after she got over her 2 years of timidity, and said, "Governor, I would like to borrow $250 from you."
I said, "I'm not sure that a lawyer would be worth that much."
She said, " I don't want to hire a lawyer. I want to pay the judge."
I thought it was a ridiculous statement for her; I felt that she was ignorant. But I found out she wasn't. She had been sentenced by a superior court judge in the state, who still serves, to 7 years or $750. She had raised, early in her prison career, $500. I didn't lend her the money, but I had Bill Harper, my legal aide, look into it. He found the circumstances were true. She was quickly released under a recent court ruling that had come down in the past few years...
…In closing, I'd like to just illustrate the point by something that came to mind this morning when I was talking to Senator Kennedy about his trip to Russia.
When I was about 12 years old, I liked to read, and I had a school principal, named Miss Julia Coleman, Judge Marshall knows her. She forced me pretty much to read, read, read, classical books. She would give me a gold star when I read 10 and a silver star when I read 5.
One day, she called me in and she said, "Jimmy, I think it's time for you to read 'War and Peace.'" I was completely relieved because I thought it was a book about cowboys and Indians.
Well, I went to the library and checked it out, and it was 1,415 pages thick, I think, written by Tolstoy, as you know, about Napoleon's entry into Russia in the 1812-15 era. He had never been defeated, and he was sure he could win, but he underestimated the severity of the Russian winter and the peasants' love for their land.
To make a long story short, the next spring he retreated in defeat. The course of history was changed; it probably affected our own lives.
The point of the book is, and what Tolstoy points out in the epilogue is, that he didn't write the book about Napoleon or the Czar of Russia or even the generals, except in a rare occasion. He wrote it about the students and the housewives and the barbers and the farmers and the privates in the army. And the point of the book is that the course of human events, even the greatest historical events, are not determined by the leaders of a nation or a state, like Presidents or governors or senators. They are controlled by the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment and unselfishness and compassion and love and idealism of the common ordinary people. If that was true in the case of Russia where they had a czar or France where they had an emperor, how much more true is it in our own case where the Constitution charges us with a direct responsibility for determining what our government is and ought to be?
Well, I've read parts of the embarrassing transcripts, and I've seen the proud statement of a former attorney general, who protected his boss, and now brags on the fact that he tiptoed through a mine field and came out "clean." I can't imagine somebody like Thomas Jefferson tiptoeing through a mine field on the technicalities of the law, and then bragging about being clean afterwards.
I think our people demand more than that. I believe that everyone in this room who is in a position of responsibility as a preserver of the law in its purest form ought to remember the oath that Thomas Jefferson and others took when they practically signed their own death warrant, writing the Declaration of Independence - to preserve justice and equity and freedom and fairness, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
Thank you very much.
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