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What would we be without a courthouse and the rule of law?

William Waller Jr, chief justice of Mississippi Supreme Court
William Waller Jr, chief justice of Mississippi Supreme Court

This year marks the bicentennial for the state of Mississippi. The judiciary and legal profession are a proud part of this celebration. Our founders understood the importance of the judiciary and the legal profession. In most counties, the courthouse was one of the earliest public structures built, often in the center of the county seat with significant architectural details and situated on a prominent location with abundant green space.

In “Requiem for a Nun,” William Faulkner vividly described the courthouse:

But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all; protector of the weak, judicate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and hopes ...

Our early citizens sacrificed to build the courthouse because they understood the importance of the rule of law as an essential feature of our democracy.

In the book “Why Nations Fail,” the authors compared the United States with other countries. In just one sector, information technology, which has produced famous innovators such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and others, the authors noted: “These entrepreneurs were confident from the beginning that their dream projects could be implemented: They trusted the institutions and the rule of law that these generated and they did not worry about the security of their property rights.”

Today we do not question whether an underlying title to a deed will be secretly altered, whether a properly closed estate will be challenged or if a court will be available to enforce a contract or redress an injury or wrong.

But by themselves, laws and a constitution are not enough to implement the rule of law. The Constitution of the Third Reich guaranteed freedom of religion, yet 6 million Jews were executed. Today, citizens of the People’s Republic of China are constitutionally provided freedom of speech and religion, yet scores of church congregations must meet secretly in homes.

Our judges and lawyers implement the rule of law at the courthouse in public view, and their efforts are recorded for posterity. One such example occurred in 1884, where civil rights were asserted and ultimately recognized at the bar of justice long after the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

Anselm McLaurin, a white Brandon attorney, sponsored Samuel A. Beadle, an African American, for his examination to become a member of the Bar. Back then, the examination took place in open court before the chancellor. The local Bar was invited to attend and participate. McLaurin’s first attempt to sponsor Beadle was rebuffed by the chancellor because of Beadle’s race. Not to be deterred, McLaurin returned, bringing with him Patrick Henry, under whom Beadle had studied the law. This time the examination was permitted to proceed. Beadle was given a rigorous examination by the chancellor, followed by questioning from members of the Bar, which included 26 attorneys from Jackson.

At the conclusion of the interview, Beadle was admitted to practice. His friends and supporters lifted him to their shoulders and carried him around the courthouse to celebrate the occasion. McLaurin would later be elected governor and U.S. senator. Henry would be elected to Congress. Beadle enjoyed a successful law practice in Jackson, Vicksburg, Natchez and Canton. But for the steadfast determination of McLaurin utilizing the courthouse as the public forum to press, prod and insist for the public examination, Beadle would never have had the opportunity to take the examination.

On Sept. 27, the Mississippi judiciary and legal profession will celebrate the bicentennial. In the Supreme Court courthouse, the original 1817 Mississippi Constitution will be on display. At 3:30 p.m., a moot court contest will take place between Mississippi College Law School and the University of Mississippi Law School, presided over by John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States. That evening, a banquet will celebrate the history and significance of the judiciary and legal profession.

I ask that each of you pause to consider the importance of the courthouse and the rule of law, and their role in our lives today. When you receive a summons for jury duty, please make it your priority to go to the courthouse to serve and do your part to preserve the rule of law.

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