This I Believe

John - Smethport, Pennsylvania
Entered on June 7, 2007

THIS I BELIEVE

Not long ago I sat with a group of governmental officials and representatives of private sector groups discussing the problems presented by a flu pandemic that would mimic the great influenza of 1918. In that outbreak 657,000 Americans died in a matter of months. That is more than have died in all of our foreign wars combined.

The potential problems are immense, and the solutions are elusive. At the meeting one representative of a trade association finally threw her hands up in frustration, and announced in complete candor: “we are telling our members to just do what they have to do, and clean up the legal mess later.”

Translated, she meant: We are telling our members if the law impedes what you think you have to do, if the law gets in your way, ignore it.

As a judge, I was shocked and alarmed. That is not the advice I would have given.

This is what I believe.

Public health officials tell us we must plan for another flu pandemic, and it will come sooner rather than later. When it comes, pandemic flu will present hard social problems. Some planning to meet those problems can be done in advance and the options carefully considered.

Unavoidably, however, some solutions are going to have to be developed on the fly. Those solutions, however, cannot be developed ignoring the law, or operating as if the law did not exist.

A flu pandemic will bring with it the illness and death of friends and neighbors repeated over and over throughout the country. It will bring the disruptions of quarantine, social isolation, and shortages of so much of what we take for granted. It will put a severe strain on our social, political and economic relationships, perhaps for months.

Faced with such a disaster it will be the rule of law, and our mutual expectation that we will all obey the law, that will save us from social disorder.

Any natural disaster creates the seismic social pressures that tend to break communities apart: grief, fear, anger, impatience, distrust of government.

But it is the rule of law that holds our American society together is a community of shared values. It is the law that reflects our collective confidence that as a society we will at least try to treat everyone alike, and that we will at least try to share the burdens of sacrifice.

Our American democracy has survived periods of social chaos before because we have learned it is the rule of law, and its built-in sense of fair play and voluntary compliance, that creates and sustains communities. No democratic community can be created or sustained by the use of coercion and force.

If we ignore the law and “just do what we have to do, and clean up the legal mess later,” we will do so at our peril.

In the end, it is the strength of community, grounded in our faith in democratic values, which assures our survival. And the most fundamental of the democratic values is belief in the rule of law.

It is by preserving the rule of law that our neighborhoods, cities, and perhaps our entire nation will ultimately endure.