Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a White House Briefing for Members of the National Law Enforcement Council

July 29, 1987

It's a pleasure welcoming you to the White House complex, you chiefs of police, state troopers, sheriffs, and other members of the National Law Enforcement Council. And it's quite a difference from my first experience with one of your kind, when I was about so high and had some fireworks in the wrong place. [Laughter] And after my father paid the fine, there were fireworks at home. [Laughter]

Well, seeing so many of you reminds me of a story. And you may have heard, everything reminds me of a story. This one concerns a fellow who was in a small automobile accident, one of those fender-bender types. And he got out, and the other fellow got out of his car, and neither one of them were hurt. But the other fellow said, "Hey, you look a little shaken up. Wait a minute here." And he went back to his car, got a bottle, handed it to him, and said, "Here, take a drink of this. It will settle you down." So, the man did. And he said, "Oh, come on, take another one. I know you're shaken up." And he did. And three or four drinks later the fellow said, "Well, wait a minute here. I don't want to drink it all. You have a drink." And he said, "No, I'll just stand here and wait for the police to get here." [Laughter]

Well, this year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the framing of the Constitution. And in the history of nations, ours is a young nation. The nations of Western Europe are older, as are many of the nations of Asia. China is much older. And yet young as our nation is, we have, nevertheless, the oldest written Constitution in the world. For two centuries our Constitution has secured the blessings of liberty for people from every part of the Earth who left behind the lands of their ancestors and came here to live in freedom and to call themselves Americans. I say this to you because you, and members of the law enforcement community like you, have played a special role in our nation ever since its founding. The men who wrote the Constitution said that among their purposes was to "establish Justice, and insure domestic Tranquility." They knew that for this to be a land of liberty it must also be a land of lawful order.

You know, a few years ago it seemed that some people who should have known better had forgotten the basic truth that law, order, and liberty go hand in hand. Too many courts appeared to regard the serious business of ensuring our domestic peace and protecting our nation's communities against crime as a kind of intricate game that pitted police officers against clever lawyers. And always we heard about the rights of criminals, rarely those of their victims.

In the last 7 years, a balance has begun once again to return to America's courtrooms. Both Federal and State Government have tightened their criminal codes. New judges have been appointed to the bench. The result has been longer sentences and a more realistic view by courts on all levels of what it's like for you to go to your duties each morning with the very real life-and-death warning, "Be careful out there." I'm proud to report to you that the Federal Government has taken a lead in bringing about this change.

When I first came into office, I promised a massive attack on organized crime, a social evil that had been tolerated too long in our nation. I said we were declaring war on the mob—its drug peddling, yes, but also its influence in every form of racketeering and its capacity to corrupt business, unions, and public law enforcement officials. When I announced this attack on the mob in 1982, I also announced a wide-ranging series of steps from new preventive and investigative measures to the appointment of a Presidential commission on organized crime. Some, of course, were skeptical, but the evidence is now in from all around the country. We're winning, and these are no longer just tactical victories. We have a full-fledged strategic assault underway, and the mob is on the run. Around the country, Federal prosecutors are winning convictions against the working heads of organized crime, and the Mafia's national board of directors, the infamous "commission," has been put behind bars. Meanwhile, drug seizures have reached record levels. Drug arrests have gone up and have included some of the most notorious figures in the drug underworld.

Three years ago, after long stalling, the Congress at last passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. The act eliminated parole and reduced the amount of time off for good behavior that could be granted a prisoner. The United States Sentencing Commission was also established, and it has drafted guidelines that make sentences more predictable. The Crime Control Act also included new provisions, like rules for confiscating drug assets. I can't tell you what a kick it was for me the first time, early on in my term, down in Florida-stand in front of a table with $20 million piled up on it, all drug assets that had been confiscated. It's making life harder for drug traffickers and easier for the police, and you can see the results for yourselves.

Last year the average Federal prison sentence for a drug offense was almost 40-percent lower [longer] than it was in 1979. The average fraud and weapons possession sentences were more than 40-percent lower [longer]. Overall, Federal sentences have averaged more than 30-percent longer than they had 7 years before. Put another way, in 1979 the average Federal sentence for drug dealers was over 50 months. Since then it has climbed steadily to 70 months, and drug convictions have doubled. Some of you may have been involved in the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System that works under the direction of Vice President Bush.

One critically important part of the criminal justice system is the judiciary. Federal judges have also been getting tougher on criminals and the sentencing figures, as they suggest. And I'm told that I've appointed 4 of every 10 judges that are sitting on the bench today. Several weeks ago, I made another nomination to the Federal Bench, one I'm particularly proud of, and I know that you've heard about him already this morning: Robert Bork. I believe that Judge Bork will be an extraordinary addition to the United States Supreme Court. He has already had a remarkable legal career. As a partner in a leading law firm, he was recognized as among the best in his field. As a professor at Yale, he became one of the preeminent legal scholars of our time. And as a judge on the most important appeals court in the country, he has been widely acclaimed for his intellectual power and his fairness. No man in America, and few in history, have been as qualified to sit on the Supreme Court as Robert Bork.

Furthermore, in his 5 years on the bench, Judge Bork has demonstrated a clear understanding of the appropriate role of the judiciary in our constitutional system. Many years ago a great Justice, Felix Frankfurter, defined his role when he said: "The highest exercise of judicial duty is to subordinate one's personal pulls and one's private views to the law." This is called the doctrine of judicial restraint. And as Lloyd Cutler, President Carter's White House Counsel, recently wrote, I quote: "All justices subscribe at least nominally to this philosophy, but few rigorously observe it. Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis D. Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Potter Stewart, and Lewis F. Powell, Jr., were among those few, and Judge Bork's articles and opinions confirm that he would be another." If I could appoint a whole Supreme Court of Felix Frankfurters, I would. And I've taken a step, I think, with Robert Bork.

The Supreme Court has shown its own esteem for Robert Bork. Judge Bork has written more than 100 majority opinions and joined in another 300 majority opinions. The Supreme Court has never reversed a single one of these more than 400 opinions. That's a vote of confidence any judge in America would envy. And what's more, 9 of the 10 times the Supreme Court reviewed a case that Judge Bork had ruled on, Justice Powell agreed with Bork. It's hard for a fair-minded person to escape the conclusion that if you want someone with Justice Powell's detachment and statesmanship you can't do better than Judge Bork.

Judge Bork deserves to be evaluated on his merits. He deserves to be considered promptly. Justice Powell has noted that when the Court is below full strength, it has an adverse effect on the Court's business. I hope the Senate will take note of this concern. One way or another, it should act on Judge Bork's nomination before the Court goes into session in October. Each Senator must decide which criteria is right for casting this critical vote: qualifications or politics. I hope you'll join me in urging the Senate to confirm Judge Bork. I feel the American people want criminals going to jail while constitutional rights are preserved. So, please tell your Senators that you'll stand by them if they support Judge Bork. I can't think of any better way of marking this 200th anniversary of the framing of our noble Constitution than by placing a Justice of Robert Bork's quality on the United States Supreme Court.

I just want to confirm how strongly I feel about you and law enforcement. There's a member of the Secret Service today who was formerly a policeman in San Bernardino, California. And I'll bet maybe you've heard of the famous diaper case. He and another man, on evidence that indicated that heroin was being sold from a certain residence, had a warrant, went in, searched the residence, and couldn't find it. And on the way out, just on a hunch, this fellow turned—there was a baby there in the crib—and he took off the baby's diaper, and there was the heroin. The evidence was thrown out of court, because the baby hadn't given its constitutional right to be searched. And that's when he quit being a policeman and came here to the Secret Service. [Laughter]

But I think we've had enough of diaper cases and that sort of thing in this land. And you ought to be freed of any such disappointments as he had when he came into court with the evidence. So, I thank you all, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:50 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a White House Briefing for Members of the National Law Enforcement Council Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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