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Guest column | Judge Steve Rushing

Legal profession prepared a great president: Lincoln

"A Legacy of Liberty — Celebrating Lincoln's Bicentennial" is the theme for law week. Fifty-one years ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a proclamation designating May 1, 1958, as the first Law Day USA. Established to emphasize the differences between America's rule of law and freedom and the communist alternative, he proclaimed America to be "a beacon of light for oppressed people of the world seeking freedom, justice and equality."

With the turbulent events of today, it is highly appropriate to celebrate the life of Abraham Lincoln, an American lawyer-president who sought to preserve the Union during another turbulent time in our nation's history.

While Lincoln is remembered as one of our greatest and most eloquent presidents, his background as a practicing lawyer for 24 years before being elected president was vitally important to his actions, his oratory and his success as president.

Lincoln was a self-educated lawyer, receiving his law license on Sept. 9, 1836. He rode the circuit trying hundreds of cases throughout Illinois. His legal skills, powers of concentration, analytical reasoning and folksy sense of humor were legendary in his time. Additionally, he appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court in an astounding 243 cases, and only one of the 27 clients he represented that were charged with murder was ever hanged. A little known fact is that he was so well-respected for his impartiality and fairness that he was often invited to sit as a part-time judge. But "Honest Abe" was more than a skillful, hard-working litigator; he was also a great peacemaker, often settling cases by mediation rather than litigation.

When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he had less experience in public office than most of those who preceded him. Therefore, he had to rely heavily on his legal experience to address the difficult decisions and to solve the daunting controversies of his presidency.

Despite the fact that his birthday on Feb. 12, 1809, is widely celebrated, that he is widely quoted, that his speeches and writings are known by most Americans, that many books have been written about him, and that he has been in many movies, he still remains a man of vast contrasts and mysterious paradoxes.

Although known as a peacemaker, he steadfastly prosecuted the war to save the Union at the cost of more than 600,000 American lives. Although he is forever known as the "Great Emancipator," the Emancipation Proclamation actually freed no one because it only applied to slaves in territories not yet under Union control while allowing slavery to exist in the loyal border states of Maryland, Kentucky and in Washington, D.C., itself.

Although hailed as "Father Abraham," the savior of the nation, and a man of law, during the Civil War he temporarily suspended certain civil liberties such as the writ of habeas corpus ("You have to be the body" in Latin, referring to the laws that govern all arrests and court proceedings, protect individuals' right to know the charges against them, and allow detainees to ask judges if their detention is lawful). He also broke or ignored several laws and constitutional provisions as he censored telegraph lines and closed post offices to treasonable correspondence, shut down hundreds of Northern newspapers and imprisoned their editors, and ordered the arrest and military detention as suspected traitors of thousands of Northern citizens who voiced opposition to the war or questioned his war policies.

Even his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, was largely overlooked and even criticized by his contemporaries when delivered on Nov. 19, 1863. As a judge myself, I find it interesting that Lincoln was not even the featured speaker and only spoke for three minutes following a two-hour speech by Judge Edward Everett at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. And his prediction that "the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here" was certainly an understatement.

However, despite these contrasts and controversies, it is a testament to Lincoln's strength of character, courage, leadership qualities, political skills and determination to save the nation at any cost that he is so highly regarded. Despite his homely appearance and sorrowful demeanor, no other American president has ever faced a greater crisis or stood taller. His legacy is secure for his liberation of the slaves, for preserving the Union, for successfully ending the Civil War "with malice towards none" and, sadly, for his untimely death at the hand of an assassin.

As law week draws to a conclusion, let us remember to celebrate the legal profession that prepared one of our greatest presidents for greatness.

Circuit Court Judge Steve Rushing serves in the 5th Judicial Circuit in Brooksville.

Legal profession prepared a great president: Lincoln 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 5:44pm]
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