Law Day 2018 - Separation of Powers: Framework for Freedom

Today we are recognizing Law Day. Our regular Tech Tuesday feature will return next week. 

Today is Law Day, an annual opportunity to reflect on the legal foundation of our nation and the fundamental role that the law plays in securing the freedoms we as Americans hold dear. At the Harris County Law Library, we're observing the day with a special Law Day exhibit, which will be on display all month long in the library lobby. We are also pleased to be featuring selected winning entries from the Houston Bar Association's annual Law Day essay and poster contest. The winning posters can be seen in the video below, along with a special Law Day message from the Harris County Law Library.

In 1957, American Bar Association (ABA) President Charles S. Rhyne, who provided legal counsel to President Eisenhower, conceived of a day dedicated to the celebration of our legal system, a vision that Mr. Eisenhower would help fulfill. The following year, on February 3, 1958, President Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3221, designating May 1st as Law Day and establishing a tradition. Every administration since has issued a Presidential Proclamation for this special occasion. The 2018 Law Day Proclamation emphasizes the wisdom of our unique structure of government. Consisting of three co-equal branches -- Executive, Legislative, and Judicial -- each with its own authority and limitations, this framework has allowed freedom to flourish for nearly 229 years.

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The legislative branch also recognized the importance of this special day. On April 7, 1961, Congress passed a joint resolution (Public Law 87-20, 75 Stat. 43) to officially establish May 1st as Law Day, codifying it into law in Title 36, Section 113. In the years since, Americans have observed Law Day with civic activities, educational programs, and special events consistent with the American Bar Association's annual Law Day theme. Based on a significant aspect of the American legal system (e.g., democracy, civil rights, legal history, the judiciary, or Constitutional law), this theme serves as a focal point for schools, libraries, courts, bar associations, community groups, civic organizations, and others to plan celebratory events.

This year's theme is Separation of Powers: Framework for Freedom, which the ABA explains with a quote from James Madison in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” On its website, the ABA elaborates:

Madison believed that the Constitution’s principles of separation of powers and checks and balances preserve political liberty. They provide a framework for freedom. Yet, this framework is not self-executing. We the people must continually act to ensure that our constitutional democracy endures, preserving our liberties and advancing our rights. The Law Day 2018 theme enables us to reflect on the separation of powers as fundamental to our constitutional purpose and to consider how our governmental system is working for ourselves and our posterity.

On this day, the Harris County Law Library invites you to reflect on the importance of a legal system designed to guard against tyranny and establish fairness, balance, and justice in the conduct of government. Don't forget to stop by our exhibit throughout the month of May, which explores the Law Day Dialogues presented on the ABA website, and encourages thoughtful consideration of this year's theme, Separation of Powers: Framework for Freedom. Happy Law Day 2018! 

Looking Back - Shelley v. Kraemer

Law Day artwork courtesy of the American Bar Association

Law Day artwork courtesy of the American Bar Association

On this date in 1948, in its landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), the highest court in the nation struck down racially restricted covenants placed on real property on the ground that such agreements denied the prospective property owners equal protection of the laws. The agreements in question, executed by a majority of property owners restricted the occupation of said properties on the basis of race. In 1945, petitioners Shelley, unaware of these restrictive covenants, received a warranty deed to a house on Labadie Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. Respondents, owners whose properties were also subject to the agreement, filed an action in the state court in Missouri asking the court to restrain the Shelleys from taking possession of the property and to divest them of title to the property. The trial court refused to enforce the agreement, finding that the agreement was never finalized because the parties intended it to be effective once all property owners signed it. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the trial court’s judgment, directing the lower court to grant the relief requested by respondent property owners.

Image of the Shelley House - courtesy of the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Photo by Gerald L. Gilleard.

The Shelleys appealed to the United States Supreme Court, asserting that they were denied equal protection of the laws, deprived of property without due process, and denied the privileges and immunities due the citizens of the United States. The court noted that, in and of themselves, the restrictions could not be considered to be in violation of any of those rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment because there was no action on the part of the state. However, the enforcement of the restrictive covenants by the state courts created the state action necessary to bring this issue squarely under the purview of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, because the state court judicially enforced the agreements, the states had effectively denied the Shelleys equal protection of the laws. The Court found it unnecessary to address the other Fourteenth Amendment issues.

The home at the center of the controversy, the Shelley House, was designated as a National Historic Landmark on December 14, 1990 because of its historic and social significance in the civil rights movement. It remains as a symbol of the fight to achieve equality and stands as a reminder that all persons, without restriction by the states or the federal government, have the right to own property. Although the house at 4600 Labadie Avenue in St. Louis is a National Historic Landmark, it is currently privately owned and not open to the public.