In his recent acceptance of the Law Day Award from the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association, Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe addresses the “cabal” that tried to seize control of the city school system in 2011. “Using the July 4th holiday as a cover, a conspiracy reaching to the highest level of state and municipal government, including the business community and the bureaucracy, galvanized under one objective: To disenfranchise every voter in the City of Bridgeport, and I am one of those voters, and to deny us the right to elect members to our municipal board of education.” Radcliffe is the husband of retired state judge Carmen Lopez, active in local education issues. It’s not often a sitting jurist shares his passions publicly. Check out his commentary that appeared first in the CT Post.
It is a great honor for me to receive, from the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association, an award that recognizes “service to the law and to the betterment of the community.”
When I was informed of this award, my first reaction was to feel deeply honored to receive it from an association of legal professionals. My second reaction was that I hope that the chief court administrator doesn’t demand a recount.
You will have to forgive me at this point if I sound a little like Breanna Stewart, following the UConn women’s victory in this year’s Final Four:
But this award should have been given to, or at the very least shared with, someone else. My wife, Carmen Lopez.
This is particularly true in light of her work here in Bridgeport as a Juvenile Court judge when she organized community tours of the Fairfield Avenue Juvenile Courthouse facility, wrote letters and was directly responsible for the new juvenile courthouse and detention center to the north and east of this hotel. No longer is the Juvenile Court housed in the vermin-infested Fairfield Avenue building.
That is community service.
It is very appropriate that the Bridgeport Bar Association presents an award named for the Liberty Bell, because the Liberty Bell is the very symbol of American freedom and liberty.
In fact, in 1752, back when it was not considered politically incorrect to quote scripture on public property, the bell was inscribed with the following from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all of the inhabitants thereof.”
A couple of years ago, Carmen and I visited Philadelphia during a hot and humid summer. It is the home of the Liberty Bell.
It was worth it. And we got a healthy respect for what the founding fathers must have gone through during a Philadelphia summer as they stitched together a new nation.
The Liberty Bell rang on July 8, 1776, four days after the declaration of independence was signed.
Every year on July 4, I make it a practice to read the Declaration of Independence at least once. This year, because of this award, I moved up the reading. We are all familiar with the lines, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
However, I would like to focus on the less quoted phrase: “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Because we must never forget that the purpose of government as spelled out in our founding documents is to protect and secure God-given rights.
During that hot Philadelphia summer in 1776, the documents signed by these patriots informed the world that the power to govern does not come from the barrel of a gun. Nor is it the result of divine right of kings or a self-proclaimed oligarchy.
Power is not given by modern day philosopher kings, as it was in Plato’s republic.
Instead, government operates with the consent of the governed. The declaration of July 4th, which the Liberty Bell announced, spoke of “truths”–not theories, not propositions, not possibilities–but truths, which were self-evident.
One of those truths is that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.
In this City of Bridgeport, in July 2011, the notion of government with the consent of the governed was tested, and came under sustained attack.
Using the July 4th holiday as a cover, a conspiracy reaching to the highest level of state and municipal government, including the business community and the bureaucracy, galvanized under one objective: To disenfranchise every voter in the City of Bridgeport, and I am one of those voters, and to deny us the right to elect members to our municipal board of education.
Thanks to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which insisted on the rule of law, as set forth in our statutes, we got back our right to vote, which this cabal had taken away. The right to vote for members of our board of education was a right that I took for granted as a resident, state representative and chairman of the town council in the town of Trumbull.
I will never do so again!
The Supreme Court affirmed that in Bridgeport and every municipality, the people rule. And we consent to be governed, we do not elect to be ruled.
Recently, I have been reading a book concerning the election of 1876, 100 years after the signing of the declaration of independence. This was certainly not America’s finest hour.
Samuel Tilden, a prominent lawyer and governor of New York, was the Democratic candidate for president, and the winner of the popular vote by a comfortable margin.
However, he was denied victory, and Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President by one vote in the electoral college.
The spectacle was not pretty. Tilden had every right, one might say, to feel bitter, disappointed and disillusioned.
He could be forgiven for saying that the election was proof that democracy doesn’t work, and self government is a myth.
However, his burial tomb in New Lebanon, New York, gives no hint of bitterness. Instead inscribed on the tomb, is the phrase, “I still trust the people.”
We know that liberty is very much at risk today and that powerful forces conspire against a government of laws and not of men, in the words of John Adams.
Our legal system is called upon to adapt and change.
Today, government, federal state and municipal enters the legal system, both the civil and criminal courts, with enormous advantages, which comes from possessing an unlimited source of funds, the bottomless pit known as the taxpayer.
There is no need for the government to worry about anything as mundane as billable hours or overhead.
Criminal investigations can be launched backed by a ‘sky is the limit budget,’ and if no crime is committed, a crime can be manufactured during the course of an investigation, based upon what is said to an investigator.
Reputations can be ruined, elections lost, political careers damaged or destroyed, based on leaks, innuendos, and whispers, even if no indictment results.
In this environment, many officials can only echo the rhetorical question asked by labor secretary Raymond Donovan after his acquittal.
“What room do I go to get my good name back?”
On the civil side, in cases where the contingency fee does not provide an indispensable key to the courthouse, examples abound.
For example, an arbitration may drag on for years, and regardless of the outcome, justice delayed is justice denied. Litigants quickly learn the truth of the old aphorism: you can’t fight City Hall, or the State House.
In public interest law suits, where citizens are subjected to clear violations of law, most lack the resources to challenge the awesome power and the unlimited budgets of government, particularly where no financial pay-offs or monetary damages are available.
The challenge for our legal community is to accomplish for the struggling middle class that which the contingency fee has done, provide the key to the courthouse, so that fundamental rights can be secured and the rule of law enforced.
Too often, the courthouse door is slammed shut on people who have consented to be governed but cannot afford the price of admission.
Perhaps those of us trained in the law–lawyers, judges and other legal professionals–need to be constantly reminded that the powers of government come from the consent of the governed.
When the smart people, the movers and shakers in the legal, business and political community say by word and action, “We know what is best for you, and trust us, it is for your own good,” we should hear a still small voice saying: “I still trust the people.”
When judges believe we know more than six jurors who have decided a case, but we know that under the law, the verdict must stand, we must resist the temptation to intervene and say: “I still trust the people.”
If we, as a legal community, believe in empowering the wider community with fidelity to the rule of law, perhaps the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, sometimes called the Great Dissenter, will ring true. Holmes, at age 90, twenty years beyond the mandatory retirement age in Connecticut, opined the following to a colleague: “Young man, about 75 years ago, I learned that I was not God, and so when the people want to do something I can’t find anything in the Constitution forbidding to do, I say, whether I like it or not, let them do it.”
As lawyers and legal professionals we have a special and unique responsibility to serve as the guardians of economic and political liberty, in the pursuit of an ideal we call justice and to always remember that any power exercised by government derives from the consent of the governed. Thank you.