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Address to the American Bar Association

October 12, 1932

I bid you a hearty welcome to Washington. You meet here under circumstances which must stir the deepest springs of your professional pride. The Supreme Court of the United States represents the summit of eminence in the legal profession. It likewise stands as an equal with the Congress and the Presidency in the solemn responsibility of exercising the highest powers of government on this Earth. And tomorrow you will share in dedicating a new building to house this great tribunal. For the first time in the history of our country, the Supreme Court is about to occupy a temple of surpassing beauty, a symbol of its independence, and an expression of its equal power in the final will of a great Nation.

I therefore understand your feelings in coming here tonight. I am in tune with them. As a fellow citizen, I share them. For though I am without the technical training of a lawyer, long responsibilities at home and abroad have taught me something of history and something of government. I therefore share the common knowledge of the special blessings which we enjoy in this country, by which men and women are safer in their persons and their liberties and more secure in the peaceful possession of their property in this land today than they are in any other time or place in all history. I assert this with full consciousness of many deficiencies of lawyers and of the law and its execution. In spite of these, the statement holds. This ordered liberty, under law, is the codification of the instincts of our people, and that codification has been largely the work of the legal profession. This freedom of men and women peacefully to pursue their business and the rearing of their families, with scarcely ever a thought of danger or duress, is a monument to the intelligence of our people and to the skill, thought, and good conscience of lawyers who have served to formulate it in the legislative bills on the bench and at the bar. For this they have deserved the gratitude of mankind.

It is also appropriate that this special recognition of the place of the Supreme Court in our Government should be given in this bicentennial year of commemoration of the birth of George Washington. The men on whom he leaned heavily in the onerous task of erecting an effective government to replace the weak structure of the Confederation were chiefly men trained in the law. Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, Monroe--the list of Constitution builders is too long to repeat. They represented the genius of our people. They combined the knowledge of history the knowledge of human nature, and the knowledge of the mechanics of law and government necessary to devise a workable machinery to govern the complex relations of men in an orderly society. And that machinery has proved by succeeding generations to have had no less than divine inspiration.

Here I wish to interject a word of admonition. These men did not limit themselves to the practice of their highly technical profession, necessary as that practice always must be. Before they were great lawyers they were great citizens. Their interest ran beyond their briefs and their precedents. They took a hearty share in the full life of the day. They felt keenly their responsibility for leadership. Their special gifts, their special training, were needed not only in the courtroom but in the administration of public affairs. The very ablest of them accepted this duty, and took their places in the legislatures, the Congress, and the administration, conscious that their full duty as lawyers required them to see that good laws must first be enacted if justice were to be done when those laws arrived in the courts for execution. But their services as citizens did not begin and end in the legislatures where laws are made. Back of legislatures is the life of the people. It is in the consciences of the people that laws are first born. These great men therefore accepted the duty of developing and guiding public thought itself. They were indefatigable letter writers, they spoke to the people from the platform and in the public halls. They debated the great public issues, contributing their knowledge and ideas and ideals to the formation of the public opinion. Since the press in those days was relatively feeble, it is hardly too much to say that the lawyers and the clergy chiefly molded the early thoughts of this Nation and gave us the institutions under which we have flourished for a century and a half.

Let me, therefore, say to you that the country still needs you to share fully in this task of forming and leading public opinion. You have a powerful new ally today in the press, but I frankly feel that too often the finest representatives of your profession abandon the field to less useful members of your craft and to other agencies which, useful as they are, still lack your special knowledge of the history and art of human relations.

There is an especial timeliness in this observation. Today, perhaps as never before, our very form of government is on trial in the eyes of millions of our citizens. Economic stresses of unparalleled magnitude have wracked our people, and in their distress some are tempted to lay the blame for their troubles upon the system of government under which they live. It is a not unnatural instinct however mistaken it may be. It can be a dangerous thing, if wise and trusted men fail to explain to the people how often in history the people's interests have been betrayed by false prophets of a millenium, promised through seductive but unworkable and disastrous theories of government. The menace is doubled by the fact that these vain allurements are today being offered to our harassed people by men of public reputation in economics and even by men in public life. No man can foretell to what lengths the pressure of public clamor may at any time be brought to bear upon those charged with the processes of government to yield to changes which you know, before they are tried, would destroy personal liberty and sweep away the security of savings and wages built up by centuries of experience. All progress and growth is a matter of change, but change must be growth within our social and governmental concepts if it should not destroy them.

You have your duty in this area to expound the history of the painful past through which rights and liberties have been won, to warn of repetitions of old and fatal experiments under new and glamorous names, to defend our system of government against reckless assaults of designing persons. It is your task to prove again what none knows better than you, that the very citadel of the rights of the poor against the oppression of rulers and against the extortions of the rapacious is the judicial system of the country, and that the impregnable apex of that system is the Supreme Court of the United States. It is impregnable because its membership in successive generations down to this moment has comprised the highest character of our land who, preserving its great traditions, have armored it with the moral support of the people, and thus, without physical power or the need of it, is able to stand equal and alone against legislative encroachment upon the people's rights or executive usurpation of them, and, more precious than either, against private injustice and the enactment of public laws in violation of the fundamental protections of the Constitution.

These deviations from steadfast constitutional limitations, which I have last named, are of paramount significance in these times of growth and change. The last 50 years have witnessed a progress in expansion of business and industry unmatched in any five centuries of previous history. The United States has been in the forefront of this progress. Inventions in transportation, communications, and factory production have multiplied the conveniences of life and have widened the fields of human intercourse immeasurably. Economic forces have spread business across State lines and have brought new strains upon our Federal system in its relationships with the State sovereignties. Laws that once were adequate to control private operations affecting the public interest proved unequal to these new conditions. Regulation and control were more than ever necessary. In the readjustment of Federal laws to State laws required by this situation, the Supreme Court has played a part of incalculable practical value. Without its prestige, without its independence, without its wisdom and power, these delicate alterations could not have been effected except at tremendous costs of injury to our people and of excessive disturbance of political equilibrium. But for the success with which this transition to large Federal regulation over interstate commerce was accomplished, the development of our great system of economic production would have been delayed, individual rights would have been trampled down, and our system of State authorities within the Union of Federal Government could scarcely have survived with all its values of local control of local issues.

We have long recognized that certain functions in our economic life are affected with public interest, which requires that their activities shall be in some measure controlled by government, either State or Federal, in protection of the citizens. In that situation we have sought to find a bridge between these controls and the maintenance of that initiative and enterprise which assures the conduct and expansion and perfection of these functions.

One of the great good fortunes of our form of government is that in the 48 States we have 48 laboratories of social and economic experimentation. But, as I have said, many of these activities--particularly those of banking and finance, of transportation, communications, and power--have expanded beyond State borders. It has become necessary during these years to develop gradually increasing burden of Federal control. With growth and experience, these regulatory functions require constant revision: On the one hand that we may prevent wrongdoing and give justice and equality of opportunity to our people, and on the other that we should not stifle these vital functions and services through the extinction of that enterprise and initiative which must dominate a growing organism.

And here lies also one of the most delicate relations of our Republic. We must maintain on the one hand a sense of responsibility in the States. It is the local communities that can best safeguard their liberties. We must therefore impose upon the States the maximum responsibility in these regulatory powers over economic functions. It may be even necessary in the long view of the Republic that the people of some States whose governments are negligent of the interests of their own people should be inadequately protected rather than destroy the initiative and responsibility of local communities and of all States and undermine the very foundations of local government. On the other hand, we must be courageous in providing for extension of these regulatory powers when they run beyond the capacity of the States to protect their citizens.

In the ebb and flow of economic life our people in times of prosperity and ease naturally tend to neglect the vigilance over their rights. Moreover, wrongdoing is obscured by apparent success in enterprise. Then insidious diseases and wrongdoings grow apace. But we have in the past seen that in times of distress and difficulty wrongdoing and weakness comes to the surface and our people, in their endeavors to correct these wrongs, are tempted to extremes which may destroy rather than build.

In the separation of responsibilities between the Federal and State Governments on matters outside of the economic field we have constantly to resist the well-meaning reformer who, witnessing the failure of local communities to discharge responsibilities of government, to extinguish crime, and to set up agencies of government free of corruption, to move apace with the thousand social and other advances which the country sorely needs, constantly advocates and agitates that the powers of the Federal Government be applied, that we may have a rigid uniformity of reform throughout the Nation. Yet even here it is better that we should witness some instances of failure of municipal and State governments to discharge responsibilities in protection and government of their people rather than that we should drive this Republic to a centralization which will mean the deadening of its great mainspring of progress which is the discovery and experimentation and advancement by the local community.

Diversity within unity is the essence of government and progress in our country. If we are to preserve the foundations of liberty in the community and the State, just as is true in the case of the individual, we must have room for self-creation and self-development, for it is the sum of these accomplishments which make the progress of the Nation. We must not believe that by guaranteeing the medium of perfection to all individuals, to all communities, to all municipalities and all States, through the deadening hand of centralization, we will secure progress.

But I wish to revert to the theme which I have mentioned before, which is that the advance in all these directions lies in the advance of public understanding. Fundamentally, our capacity to extinguish criminality and lawlessness lies in the moral training and moral stature of our people. Fundamental advancement in the control of great business and great enterprise lies in the growth of the social instinct and social responsibility of the men who direct these enterprises. In these basic processes of education and moral training, of spiritual development, you as the organized lawyers and leaders of your community have a first responsibility in directing the multitude of agencies which can advance this so fundamental a program.

Parallel with our experience of the last 50 years of economic change and regulation, this Nation has encountered similar new and equally troublesome developments in the management of the problem of crime. Crime is a more personal, a more individual thing, than economics. I have often said that you cannot overtake an economic law with a policeman. But the only thing that can overtake a criminal is a policeman. The facts of most crimes are localized; they must be investigated at the scene. The pursuit of the criminal must be directed from the community whose peace has been broken, and the evidence for his trial can most effectively and most justly be presented to his neighbors and judges in that community. Thus, in spite of the fact that crime also has frequently become interstate, the suppression of crime is still most effectively accomplished locally, and fundamentally must remain the responsibility of the State and local governments and should not be shifted to the Federal Government.

In this field, likewise, you gentlemen of the legal profession have a most serious duty. The criminal law has become a complex and often tortuous thing, responding to the growing complexity of modern life. But it is needlessly complicated. Your court procedures are too unwieldy. One of the most disheartening difficulties of zealous officers of government is the law's delays, during which evidence loses its value, witnesses die, and criminals are encouraged to believe that through its maze of technicalities justice can be neither swift nor sure. You have a duty to simplify these procedures, to shorten these processes, to make the administration of law a terror to evildoers by its promptness and certainty.

There is another field of urgent reform in the fields of justice--that is, the laws, the technicalities, the procedure, the cost of civil actions, of management of estates, or bankruptcies, and of receiverships. These laws and procedures have failed to keep pace with all the growing complexities of economic and business life, and they must be simplified that their costs and their economic wastes be reduced.

A corollary duty, one that will hasten this end, is that you shall purge your profession of men unworthy of its trust. You occupy a position unlike that of other men who may honorably pursue only their private gain. You are, besides that, quite specifically officers of government, sworn members of the courts in which you practice, and bound by oath to see not only that justice is done but that the laws are enforced. Too many men have been allowed to take this oath and then be false to it. They use the complexities of law and procedure, not to effect justice, but to defeat it. These men you must scourge from the temple which they profane. It is greatly to the credit of the American Bar Association that you have voluntarily accepted this duty, and are in constant process of cleansing the fountains of justice. But I urge a yet greater zeal in this undertaking, not only for the honor of your profession but for the welfare of the state.

To you gentlemen, Mr. Chief Justice and your honored associates, I extend most hearty congratulations upon the happy occasion which has brought this gathering together tonight. The superb building which you will dedicate tomorrow will visualize to the eyes of the people the majesty of the law upon which our peaceful Nation is securely rounded and whose rights and liberties the law protects. It will remind them of the debt of gratitude they owe to the Supreme Court for the statesmanship with which it has guided the course of constitutional interpretation through all the perils of rapid national evolution and growth, preserving the ancient principles and adapting their application to the changing needs of the times. This building will make more convenient your labors of carrying on this great tradition with the high consecration which has earned for you collectively the admiration of the legal fraternity and the affection of the country. So long as our form of government shall last, this building will stand as a shining monument to the character of a great people who wisely put their trust in liberty under law and who guard the ordered preservation of their rights through an instrument of government whose final authority is the people's own moral power.

Note: The President spoke at 9:30 p.m. to a special session of the bar association assembled in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes introduced the President.

The National Broadcasting Company and the Columbia Broadcasting System radio networks carried the address.

Herbert Hoover, Address to the American Bar Association Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/207853

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