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Bar News - March 22, 2017

Opinion: Recalling Jimmy Carter’s Call for Change on Law Day


A new president; a new governor; a new senator; all things new. The old guard gets out of touch and people demand change. This happens regularly in our country. In fact, one of my favorite calls for change, all-time, comes from a surprising source: the speech given by then-Governor Jimmy Carter, at the University of Georgia Law School, for Law Day, in May 1974.

Carter was a bright guy, a nuclear engineer by training and a businessman by trade (calling him a peanut farmer was accurate, but misleading; he ran a large operation). And rather than giving the expected speech about how great the law is, and how important lawyers are, and what great work they all do, he took his audience to task instead.

He told them that as an engineer, he constantly looked for ways to improve his machinery; that this was an imperative for engineers, who knew that lives depended on their work. He added that the same went for his farming; that if one farmer found a more efficient way to do things, every single farmer would follow along immediately-- or go out of business. And he compared that to the law: to how content lawyers often seem, with how things were done in the past; and how much society therefore suffers from the conservatism of the legal profession.

In some ways, this was vintage Carter, taking the moral high ground at little or no cost to himself, pointing out ways to improve things, and allowing others to work out the details – so if and when the project failed, it would be someone else’s failure, not his. But he still gets credit for his Law Day speech, because he was right. Lawyers hate change, and we still do. We still fight about e-mailing with our courts. Never mind applying science to our sentencing practices…

And it’s worth noting that Carter was hardly exceptional in his outlook, in 1974. I would call him instead a man of his times. Another favorite work of mine is a book-length essay from 1968 called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, by Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was an engineer (like Carter). And he also believed that our commitment to past practices blinds us to both how things can and should be done in the present; that we are wasting our resources accordingly; and finally, that our problem is a spiritual one, not a material one (hence all those old bumper stickers equating one fighter jet with its equivalent in school lunches. )

And Fuller’s work, itself, was an application of the historian Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, of 1962. Kuhn argued that science proceeds by way of paradigm shifts. To wit: scientists understand the world in a certain way; they conduct experiments according to that model; evidence eventually mounts, that their model does not reflect reality; and a new model finally surfaces, to replace the old one. Per Kuhn, there is no final model. There is only the endless process of re-invention. Which society often hinders, to the detriment of progress.

I will leave it to better minds than my own to link Kuhn to the works of other luminaries, like Jesus and Buddha. But I will leave you with two stories, to better illustrate the heart of this matter.

The first comes courtesy of Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher who also collected old rabbinical tales. Several hundred years ago, one rabbi sent a group of his students to another rabbi, to study for a time. They observed him and found fault with how he prayed. “Our rabbi does it another way,” they told him. To which he replied, “The god to which I pray is far too important to worry about such details. Please go back home and pray to your god, and leave me here so I can pray to mine.” They decided to stay after all.

And the second comes from Teddy White, a mid-century journalist who often wrote about presidential elections. Coming into New York one time, he quizzed his cabdriver about who he was voting for. “The other guy,” the cabbie said. “Every time. Because once they get in, they’re all for themselves. But they all start out trying to do better, so I always vote for whoever is out.” When asked if there were ever exceptions to this rule, the cabdriver said no. “Except for one. La Guardia.” And he turned around to emphasize his words. “Mister, La Guardia was different,” he told White. “La Guardia cared about us.”

For the record, New York’s old mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, was a member of the Republican party, as well as a champion of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

And the Little Flower would surely agree: to have a positive effect, change must be effected with both humility (i.e., recognizing that your own thoughts can never be the ultimate say on any given matter) and love (i.e., what makes a New York cabdriver turn around in his seat and point at your chest).

Michael Davidow

Michael Davidow is a public defender at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and serves as chair of the NH Bar Association Communications Advisory Council. He can be reached by email.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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