Nearly 170 years ago, a young Abraham Lincoln delivered an impassioned speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. Summarizing his theme, Lincoln said:
Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother. Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges. Let it be written in primers, [in] spelling books and in almanacs. Let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in the courts of justice.
In short, let reverence for the law become the political religion of the nation.
What prompted Lincoln’s stirring plea? He had been deeply affected by the recent outbreaks of mob rule and lynchings throughout the land. He was already anguishing over the question of slavery. He saw the storm clouds gathering and knew this question would one day split the nation apart.
But even given those weighty, historic issues, what troubled Lincoln equally was that law-abiding citizens were losing their respect for the rule of law. They were losing confidence in their system of justice. Lincoln knew that the failure to restore this respect and confidence would undermine the very foundation of America’s democracy and civil society.
People have to believe in our justice system. They have to trust that it is fair. When justice becomes a game, a joke, a racket, or a private preserve for the privileged few, the foundation for a just, fair, and orderly society begins to rot.
We are now faced with this same challenge.
During the 1980s, after decades in which the rights of criminal defendants were exalted over the rights of law-abiding citizens, major reforms were enacted to address the imbalance and restore a measure of public faith in criminal justice. Inspired by victims and their families and volunteer groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, new laws and tougher penalties were enacted, and they worked to help reduce crime rates in California and across the nation.
We must now act upon our civil justice system with the same sense of urgency, purpose, and passion that brought such welcome and long-overdue changes to our system of criminal justice two decades ago.