The first day of May is recognized in much of the world as International Workers Day, while in the United States, May Day is also known as “Law Day,” by proclamation of President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. In 1961, a joint resolution of Congress made it official. The day was set aside “for the cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life,” according to the congressional resolution that supported the president’s declaration.
While not an official holiday, Law Day offers a valuable milepost for gauging the nation’s progress in our respect for the rule of law and individual civil rights and liberties.
Its creation dovetailed with the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy took note of the situation facing minority groups. He said African-American children born that year had “about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man,” as well as “a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.”
Great strides have been made in extending civil rights to all citizens. Our current landscape of opportunity for men and women of all races provides a useful lens to look back on the Civil Rights Act passed on July 2, 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Law Day 2014 celebrates these two civil rights bills by Congress. Fifty years ago, the civil right movement set the stage for Congress to pass significant legislation. Although our national legislature had passed many civil rights bills since the Civil War — including one as early as 1866 — it became clear that more sweeping changes were necessary.
Thus it passed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which ensured citizenship and equal rights for all, and the 15th Amendment ensuring voting rights. The 14th Amendment made an important change to the constitutional order. Previously, it primarily restricted the activities of the federal government. The 14th Amendment applied those protections against the actions of individual state governments. The amendment said that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Of vital significance was the ability to compel action. Under the 14th Amendment, Congress enjoys the “power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
Congress’ oversight role provides it with this constitutional authority to enforce our civil rights. And it provides an important democratic check against those who would seek to declare rights more expansive than those clearly articulated in the Constitution.
It may be unusual to set aside a day to pay homage to a nation’s legal system, but the tapestry of American law emanating from the Constitution is itself unique. It is a heritage, as President Eisenhower said, “of liberty, justice and equality under the law which our forefathers bequeathed to us,” and one certainly deserving of a day for respect and reflection.
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