Quotable quotes: Display features presidents' memorable sayings on justice

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald E. Rosen, Eastern District of Michigan, will sometimes pause on the first floor of the courthouse to listen to what people say about the Presidents Wall of law-related quotes and portraits that was installed there last year.

''The comments are fascinating,'' he said. ''Some are history buffs and read the quotes of all the presidents. Others say, 'Wow.' Uniformly, the reaction is very positive.''

Any way you look at it, the 78-year-old Theodore Levin Courthouse in downtown Detroit is an impressive building. The Presidents Wall makes the home of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan that much more interesting.

The idea originated with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, Sixth Circuit, who pointed out to Rosen that there were no pictures of the President of the United States in the courthouse. When Rosen's son suggested the idea of a historical exhibit of all the presidents, the idea took off.

Rosen and Keith met with architects and the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan Historical Society, which formed a committee to research the presidents and choose favorite quotes, and pair them with official portraits courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

''We had an overriding theme,'' said U.S. District Court Judge David M. Lawson, one of the 10 members of the committee. ''We wanted to find a quote for each president that somehow captured patriotism, and the relationship between the presidency and the judiciary branches of government.''

So the assignments were passed out, with each member picking a president of preference, until all were chosen.

''Then it was our task to go into whatever archival sources we were able to uncover and find quotes for each of these presidents,'' said Lawson. ''We looked to State of the Union addresses, inaugural speeches, writings, and in cases of some of the earlier presidents, we looked to letters to colleagues or other published manuscripts.''

Each participant chose three quotes, indicated a preference, and put them to a committee vote.

In addition to Lawson, the Presidential Quote Committee included Judge John Feikens; Catherine Beck; Brian Figot; Michael Lavoie; Judith Christie; Ellen Dennis; Michael Leibson; Matthew Schneider; and Jeffrey Raphelson.

Figot said everyone knows John F. Kennedy said, ''Ask not what your country can do for you,'' but may not be familiar with justice-related quotes that were also interesting.

Zachary Taylor's quote some 150 years ago about the limited powers of government speaks to today with the problem with the judicial branch not getting its proper due in the separation of powers, Figot said.

He said he found no differences in the quotes from presidents who were lawyers, and those who were not. Noting that Zachary ''Rough & Ready'' Taylor was a military general, Figot said he clearly understood the essence of his office and of the judiciary, and that his words were similar to those of William Howard Taft, who became Supreme Court Chief Justice after he was president.

Lavoie, president of the History Society for the Eastern District of Michigan, said the committee looked for quotes that dealt with issues that still linger today, including majority rule, rights of the minority, civil rights, and judicial restraint.

Figot likes Millard Filmore's 1850 quote: ''The law is the only sure protection of the weak and the only efficient restraint upon the strong. When impartially and faithfully administered, none is beneath its protection and none above its control.''

''That speaks to the years before the Civil War when he was president and that speaks to today,'' he said. ''Law is an equalizer, and all are equal before the law.''

Asked to name his favorite quote, Lawson chose Lincoln's quote taken from his second inaugural address just a few weeks before his death:

''With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.''

Lawson said Lincoln's words capture the spirit of patriotism, good governance and humanity.

He said he hopes visitors to the display appreciate the depth of the presidents' intellect the committee discovered in the process of searching out and finding the quotes.

''Maybe it will stimulate people's curiosity to look behind the oil and canvas of the portraits to examine the lives of these people who were certainly not infallible, but devoted a good part of their life and their energy to the common good,'' he said.

Published: Mon, Nov 21, 2011

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