Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association in Atlanta, Georgia
August 1, 1983
Thank you very much, Morris Harrell, members and officers of the ABA, and ladies and gentlemen. I'm delighted to be back in beautiful Atlanta. And it's with a happy heart that I share with you the honor of this special occasion, the 105th annual meeting of the great American Bar Association. It isn't true that I attended the first meeting. [Laughter]
You know, a speaker always hopes that he can identify some way, and that there's some relationship between himself and his audience. And I was just reading something the other day that maybe made it -- that I can do that. It said that to be a great trial lawyer you have to have some histrionic ability and a little bit of ham. [Laughter] Now, you had to remember back a ways for that. [Laughter]
Well, we respect the gentleman who has led your organization with vision and skill -- Morris Harrell. As you all know, there are a lot of jokes -- as I just tried one -- with lawyers as the target. Thomas Jefferson reportedly blamed his problems with the Congress on a hundred lawyers whose trade it is, as he said, ``to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour.'' [Laughter] Well, I'd like to say something else, and say it for the record today. Under Morris Harrell's leadership, the ABA has not sought to control America; you have sought to serve America.
And now, I didn't remember enough whether the figures are going to be correct that I'm giving, but I understand that you have some 30,000 lawyers and 300 law firms contributing toward the $10\1/2\ million raised for your Second Century Fund. These contributions are the centerpiece of the ABA's public service work for America: hundreds of programs addressing public concerns ranging from child abuse to the problems of the elderly, from government waste to the high cost of justice, from juvenile crime to the energy challenge. We need your idealism and compassion in our families, neighborhoods, businesses, and government. We need you to carry on this fine tradition of public service.
May I also congratulate Morris Harrell's successor, Wallace Riley. And, Wally, I want you to know that the door to the Oval Office will always be open to you and your members.
Much like Sam Johnson said about the man to be hanged, it concentrates my mind -- [laughter] -- to stand before so many of America's finest attorneys. I'm reminded of a challenge that one of America's foremost lawyers had to face. I'm speaking about Abraham Lincoln. As a young lawyer, he once had to plead two cases in the same day before the same judge. Both involved the same principle of law. But in one Lincoln appeared for the defendant and in the other for the plaintiff. Now, you can see how this makes anything above a 50-percent success rate very difficult. [Laughter]
Well, in the morning, Lincoln made an eloquent plea and won his case. Later, he took the opposite side and was arguing just as earnestly. And puzzled, the judge asked why the change in attitude. ``Your Honor,'' said Honest Abe, ``I may have been wrong this morning -- [laughter] -- but I know'' -- [laughter]. He knew he was right in the afternoon.
Well, I haven't come today to plead two cases, but to plead one. I've not come to tell you what I'm against, but what I know all of us are for. We must preserve the noble promise of the American dream for every man, woman, and child in this land. And, make no mistake, we can preserve it, and we will. That promise was not created by America. It was given to America as a gift from a loving God -- a gift proudly recognized by the language of liberty in the world's greatest charters of freedom, our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Seventy-seven years after it was adopted, Lord Acton said of the men who had written the Constitution that ``they had solved with astonishing and unexampled success two problems which had hitherto baffled the capacity of the most enlightened nations: they had contrived a system of Federal Government which . . . increased the National power, and yet respected local liberties and authorities; they had founded it on the principle of equality, without surrendering the securities for property and freedom.'' Well, here, for the first time in the history of the world was a system in which man would not be beholden to government; government would be beholden to man.
The explicit promise in the Declaration that we're endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights was meant for all of us. It wasn't meant to be limited or perverted by special privilege or by double standards that favor one group over another. It is a principle for eternity, America's deepest treasure. Father Hesburgh reminded us, our rights are ``corollaries of the great proposition, at the heart of Western civilization, that every . . . person is a res sacra, a sacred reality, and as such is entitled to the opportunity of fulfilling those great human potentials with which God has endowed man.''
The promise of America, the character of our people, the thrust of our history, and the challenge of our future all point toward a higher mission: to build together a society of opportunity, a society that rewards excellence, bound by a body of laws nourished with the spirit of faith, equity, responsibility, and compassion. The streets of America would not be paved with gold; they would be paved with opportunity. Success would depend upon personal initiative and merit.
Thomas Jefferson said his criteria for honor and status was not wealth, but virtue and talent. In ``Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years,'' Carl Sandburg wrote that Lincoln believed ``the accent and stress was to be on opportunity, on equal chance, equal access to the resources of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To give man this equal chance in life was the aim, the hope, the flair of glory, spoken by the Declaration of Independence.''
Through the years, this promise was made real, thanks to the hard work, the dedication, and commitment to freedom of the American people. Our commitment to freedom has meant commitment to the rule of law, and commitment to the law has created opportunity: for example, historic legislation like the Homestead Act; passage of the 14th amendment to strengthen the guarantee of civil rights for every citizen, regardless of race, creed, or color; and, more recently, Brown vs. Board of Education, which emphatically decreed that race can never be used to deny any person equal educational opportunity. No future will outshine ours if we hold tight to the torch of freedom, if we remain true to the rule of law, and if we meet the challenge of providing opportunity to all our people.
One of my dreams is to help Americans rise above pessimism by renewing their belief in themselves. And I'm glad to say we are seeing a renewal of confidence in America. We're determined to build an agenda for opportunity on three pillars: excellence, equality, and growth -- economic growth.
This must be an agenda that opens the gates of freedom so all people can go as far as their God-given talents will take them. For every legal and economic action we consider, I ask: Will this serve to liberate and empower the individual; will it encourage us to reach for the stars, or will it weaken us and drag us down into submission and dependence?
Law is the handmaiden of liberty, essential to preserving order in freedom. And we cannot have order unless people are certain of their full scope of their rights and legal protections. Vague or excessive laws, or inconsistent judicial decisions, threaten our freedom. As organizers, negotiators, and protectors of our civil liberties, your role is crucial. You can help us correct laws which are barriers to opportunity. You can insist on fairness and consistency in the administration of justice. You can help us create America's agenda for opportunity.
We believe that agenda begins with a search for excellence -- men and women of excellence -- to serve as leaders of our government. It's people, after all, who must operate a government that is based upon law.
With your counsel, we've sought judicial nominees who support the limited policymaking role for the Federal courts envisioned by the Constitution. The Founding Fathers did not want our judiciary system to be first among equals. They wanted it to be one of three coequal branches of government.
We aim for a cross section of appointments that fully reflects the rich diversity and talent of our people. But we do not and will never select individuals just because they are men or women, whites or blacks, Jews, Catholics, or whatever. I don't look at people as members of groups; I look at them as individuals and as Americans. I believe you rob people of their dignity and confidence when you impose quotas. The implicit but false message of quotas is that some people can't make it under the same rules that apply to everyone else.
When an opening appeared on this nation's highest court, I selected the person I believed the most outstanding candidate. I'm proud that for the first time in our history, a woman, named Sandra Day O'Connor, now sits on the Supreme Court of the United States. But I'm proudest of this appointment not because Justice O'Connor is a woman, but because she is so well qualified.
We're committed to appointing outstanding blacks, Hispanics, and women to judicial and top-level policymaking positions in our administration. Three women are members of my Cabinet, more than ever before in history. In our first 2 years, we appointed more women to top-policy posts than any administration before us. And I think that's a pretty good start.
Now, permit me to speak, too, on behalf of our nominees to the Civil Rights Commission: Morris Abram, John Bunzel, Robert Destro, and our nominee for Staff Director, Linda Chavez. They are people of distinction and integrity -- all Democrats -- whose talent, independence, and commitment to civil rights are beyond question. They are champions of opportunity. But these fine Americans are under fire. My nominating them supposedly compromises the independence of the Commission. Well, forgive me, but that's hogwash.
Historian Carl Brauer wrote that John Kennedy sought, through appointments, to liberalize the Commission. And officials of his administration, and even a representative of the Democratic National Committee, met regularly with the Staff Director of the Civil Rights Commission to plan strategy. Presidents Johnson and Carter also sought to appoint individuals who reflected their ideas on how to achieve our common goal of civil rights for all Americans. So, isn't it strange that we never heard in the past this charge about compromising the independence of the Commission? Let's be fair and recognize the attack upon our nominees for what it is.
The plain truth is, our nominees are independent, independent from every voice but their own conscience. They don't worship at the altar of forced busing and mandatory quotas. They don't believe you can remedy past discrimination by mandating new discrimination. They are committed activists for genuine civil and human rights, wise and courageous citizens. And I think they deserve your strong support.
If excellence is one pillar of the agenda for opportunity, equality is another, and it's just as important -- equality of rights, treatment, and protection under the law. We want every American to participate fully in society on the basis of individual merit, regardless of race, sex, or national origin. I reaffirm today our unshakable commitment to eliminate discrimination against blacks, women, the handicapped, and other minorities. And let me add, this is not just our legal commitment; it is also our moral commitment.
Racial violence and other criminal violations of civil rights laws are among the most heinous intrusions upon individual liberty. We do not shy from prosecution or punishment. The Department of Justice has filed more than a hundred new cases charging criminal violations of civil rights laws. We have tried 80 cases. That's not just a respectable number; it's substantially more than any prior administration during a comparable period.
In the area of fair housing, we're keeping our pledge to strengthen enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. We introduced legislation to significantly amend the law for the first time since its enactment so we can put real teeth into the principle of equal protection from discrimination.
In a democracy, there is no greater expression of equal opportunity than the right to vote. And I am proud to have supported and signed into law the longest extension ever of the Voting Rights Act. Under this administration, the Department of Justice has reviewed approximately 25,000 proposed electoral changes under the Voting Rights Act. They have objected to 165 on the grounds of racial discrimination. The Department has been active in litigation, participating in a total of 52 cases, 25 of which were initiated under this administration.
We're also committed to eliminating all traces of discrimination in the law against women. At the same time, we're doing our best to restore respect for the family and the homemakers who do so much to hold our society together.
Take a look at America, 1983. Things are changing -- and for the better. The income tax marriage penalty has been greatly reduced; the maximum child care tax credit for working mothers has been increased -- almost doubled; we've eliminated the estate tax for surviving spouses. We've authorized larger I.R.A. contributions for working women. We're strengthening child support enforcement to make absent fathers meet their obligations; and we've moved in the courts to remedy inequities in pensions. As I've mentioned, we've appointed more women to top policy posts than any administration before us. And we've increased the purchasing power of all Americans by knocking down inflation.
Those who specialize in partisan rhetoric and the politics of accusation may close their eyes to progress, but Americans are fairminded. They don't look at the world with blinders. If given the facts, I'm confident they'll agree that much has and is being done to assure that every woman has an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream.
All these reforms are important. We're committed to them and to doing more. But we need another reform, assurance that the American people can walk the streets and sleep in their homes without being afraid. The rule of law represents the civil discourse of a free people. Crime is the uncivilized shout that threatens to drown out and ultimately silence the language of liberty. I believe the scales of criminal justice have tilted too far toward protecting criminals. And more must be done to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens.
Crime is an issue of social justice. Its elimination is essential to full freedom and opportunity for all Americans. To cite just one example, in 1980, blacks were victimized by crimes against persons at a 25-percent higher rate than whites. So, we've introduced the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1983 -- to deny bail to a defendant posing a threat to the community; to make prison sentencing more certain; to end abuses of parole; and to modify the exclusionary rule, so that evidence obtained in good faith can be used in a criminal trial.
Over 50 percent of violent crime goes unreported. I have appointed a Presidential Task Force on Victims of Crime, and it has made 68 recommendations. Many of them are being acted upon. We're also carrying out many enforcement initiatives. We now have law enforcement coordinating committees in over 90 judicial districts. Last Thursday, I had the honor of appointing a commission to conduct a region-by-region analysis of organized crime infiltration -- a commission headed by one of the most distinguished members of your profession, Judge Irving R. Kaufman. And we've set up 12 regional drug enforcement task forces. They're modeled on the successful South Florida Task Force, which stemmed the heavy flow of drugs into Florida. They're working on 260 cases. We think it's time, also, to crack down on the peddlers of filth and smut. The Justice Department has a program to do this, and we've notified U.S. attorneys that enforcement of pornography laws is a prime concern.
Finally, I submit to you, it's not good enough to have equal access to our law; we must also have equal access to the higher law -- the law of God. George Washington warned that morality could not prevail in exclusion of religious principles. And Jefferson asked, ``. . . can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we've removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are the gifts of God.''
The first amendment was not written to protect the people from religious freedom. The first amendment was written to protect people's religious beliefs from government tyranny. The American people support a constitutional amendment permitting their children to begin their days as the Members of Congress do: with prayer. Prayer would be voluntary. It could not be state composed, and I hope the ABA will support it. And I'm not going to add that if the children start out the same way as the Congressmen, I hope they'll turn out more -- [inaudible]. [Laughter]
Our last great pillar of our agenda is opportunity -- or for opportunity is for economic growth. Franklin Roosevelt told us that ". . . freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.''
A sparkling economy is the best hope for all who strive to pull themselves up. And we have a program to do that. It's called economic recovery. One of the best signs that that program is working is that they don't call it Reaganomics anymore. [Laughter] What bothers many in Washington is our belief that you can only build a durable recovery with more freedom, not more government. But I think Justice Brandeis was right when he said, ``Experience teaches us to be most on our guard in protecting liberty when Government's purposes are beneficent.''
As attorneys you understand the importance of evidence and experience. Oliver Wendell Holmes said a page of history is worth of volume of logic. If we look at recent history, I believe one conclusion is inescapable: No overall improvement occurred in reducing poverty in America during the very period when government spending in the name of the poor was exploding. The decline in the percentage of people in poverty began leveling off in the late sixties, reversing almost two decades of dramatic improvement. Then, and even worse, between 1971 and 1980, the percentage of American households dependent on welfare rose by 20 percent.
This tragedy was accompanied by the increasing breakdown of families. Nearly half of all poor families in 1980 were headed by women, and the number of single teenage mothers is estimated to have grown by 50 percent in the decade of the seventies. The dramatic increase in dependence was clearly associated with a change in the nature of public assistance. The emphasis shifted from F. D. R.'s model of direct payments to the needy. We began supporting a growing army of professionals. I don't question their good intentions, but their economic self-interest lay in extending dependency, not in ending it. And that's exactly what happened. Eligibility standards were also relaxed, and the tradition that public assistance should be shunned was replaced with an income transfer ethic.
Encouraging dependency had a clear impact on reducing economic growth. Irresponsible spending added to the ranks of poverty by generating higher inflation. This triggered a sharp increase in the tax burden, destroying incentives for savings and investment, crippling real earnings. The Joint Economic Committee estimated the drop in productivity growth in the 1970's cost the average household nearly $3,000 in income. America wasn't going forward. We were going backward. Let us have the courage to speak the truth: Policies that increase dependency and break up families are not progressive; they're reactionary, even though they are invariably promoted, passed, and carried out in the name of fairness, generosity, and compassion.
The good news is we're beginning to turn incentive structures and the economic situation around. Poverty is far from solved. Problems which had been neglected for more than a decade were made worse by the recent recession. But the conditions for meaningful and lasting improvement are clearly being established. Spending growth has been cut. Public assistance is being retargeted to the truly needy. And over 85 percent of those who have left the welfare rolls have not returned. They're out there independent. Just as important, we've reduced tax rates and restored incentives for growth.
The United States is leading the world into economic recovery with strong growth and low inflation. The experts said it couldn't be done. Who will benefit most from an inflation rate below 3 percent -- it's been 2.6 percent for the last 12 months, the lowest rate in more than 15 years -- and a growth rate which approached 9 percent in the second quarter? Well, the answer is those with the lowest incomes. Inflation hurts them most, and our success against inflation will help them most. And let's remember, when the economy was strong and healthy during the fifties and sixties, poverty rapidly declined.
I think we need a new dialog in America. It might begin with an intellectual housecleaning in Washington, D.C. It's time to bury the myth that bigger government brings more opportunity and compassion. In the words of Morris Abram, our nominee to the Civil Rights Commission, it's time for some people, he said, to ``stop shouting slogans of the past and begin dealing with facts, figures and conditions of the present.''
In the name of fairness, let's stop trying to plunder family budgets with higher taxes, and start controlling the real problem -- Federal spending. In the name of growth, let's stop talking about billions for more dependency and start creating enterprise zones and new incentives for opportunity -- so we can keep the dream alive for millions of aspiring whites, blacks, and Hispanics. In the name of America, let's stop spreading bondage and start spreading freedom.
Let's remember what we're all about. All of us, as Americans, are joined in a common enterprise to write the story of freedom -- the greatest adventure mankind has ever known, and one we must pass on to our children and our children's children -- remembering that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.
The warning, more than a century ago, attributed to Daniel Webster, remains as timeless as the document he revered when he asked, ``Who shall reconstruct the fabric of demolished government? Who shall raise again the well proportioned columns of Constitutional liberty? Who shall frame together the skillful architecture which unites national sovereignty with states rights, individual security, and public prosperity?'' And then he said, ``Hold onto the Constitution of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands. Miracles do not cluster -- what has happened once in 6,000 years may never happen again. Hold onto your Constitution, for if the American Constitution shall fall there will be anarchy throughout the world.''
Trusting in God and helping each other, we can and will preserve the dream of America, the last best hope of man on Earth.
Thank you very much, and God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 11:12 a.m. in the Robert F. Maddox Auditorium at the Atlanta Civic Center.
Following his remarks, the President met with Georgia Republican leaders in the Exhibit Hall at the civic center. He then returned to Washington, D.C.