About the Bar

Charles L. Ruffin Incoming Speech - June 22, 2013

Charles L. Ruffin speech photo

Good morning.

Robin, thank you for your exceptional leadership during the past year. For a long time to come, the legal profession, the justice system and the people of our state will benefit from your service and the Bar’s achievements during your year.

Starting this evening when I take the oath of office, I will have the honor of succeeding Robin in what will be a year of observance and celebration of the first half-century of the State Bar of Georgia.

This year, 2013-2014, will mark not only the 50th anniversary of the State Bar of Georgia but also the 130th anniversary of the establishment of its predecessor, the Georgia Bar Association, and the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Fellow Bar members, permit me to take a few minutes this morning to reflect on that last milestone, what the Constitution means to this nation and in particular to our profession, whether we have allowed or are allowing an erosion of the Constitution and the rule of law in our society and, if so, what we can do to restore its preeminent position in the affairs of our nation.

I believe the Constitution is only as good as the people for whom it was enacted and who are covered by its provisions. The character of the population for whom the Constitution provides guiding principles is paramount to its longevity.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied succinctly, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

More than two centuries later, Franklin’s words still ring true.

Whether we can continue to keep our republic depends, I believe, on the strength of our constitutions—yes, plural “constitutions”— applying three of the several definitions the dictionary gives us for the word:

  • First, the basic principles and laws of a nation that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people. That’s the “capital C” Constitution that we use most often.
  • Second, the physical and mental makeup of an individual, especially with respect to the health, strength and appearance, as in a person with “a hearty constitution.”
  • Third, the structure, composition, physical makeup or nature of something, in other words the “constitution of society.”

Fellow Bar members, I am concerned about our constitutions—not only the written instrument that embodies our foundational principles—but more to the point, whether we have the individual and collective constitutions that are morally, mentally, physically and spiritually strong enough to meet today’s challenges. 

As a nation, we seem to have lost our competitive edge. Consider the following:

First, we have lost a lot of jobs in this country, particularly in manufacturing—7 million over the last decade. During the surge in Iraq in 2007, for example, when we were looking for a company to produce reinforced steel for military vehicles, only one company had the capacity to manufacture that kind of steel. That is not a good prospect for our nation’s defense.

Second, there are not as many jobs for the middle class as there once were. Without a vibrant middle class, we won’t have the law practice we want to have. If you don’t believe me, talk to your friends who practice in small towns. There is just not as much economic activity going on in small towns as there once was.

Third, I believe the greatest security threat to our Constitution is our budget deficit. We simply must get our fiscal house in order to revitalize our economy and create manufacturing and other jobs in this country.

A lot of lawyers are suffering today. For that, there are a number of factors. We can point to lawyer advertising . . . to witness-only closings . . . to “Legal Zoom .com” and its ilk.

But I contend the overriding factors are all related to the continued sickness of our national economy and our failure to defend jobs for this country. Too many jobs, American jobs, are moving elsewhere, while too few are being created here.

I don’t mean we should not participate in the world economy. But the fact of the matter is we have to tailor our federal and state tax and regulatory policies to attract and keep these jobs. We’ve got to have the manufacturing and economic strength to make sure we can preserve, protect and defend the Constitutions of this country.

Another critical factor in maintaining our individual and societal constitution is what we teach our children. We need to teach our children about the history and founding of this country, why the rule of law, under the Constitution, is critical to our future, and the values that sustain this nation.

I was privileged to grow up in the small town of Vidalia, Georgia, where I learned from my family and community a number of basic values:

  • Duty to country, second only to your duty to God
  • Feeding, protecting and educating your family
  • There is no free lunch
  • There is dignity in all work

These values were part of the air I breathed every day. Examples abounded!

And during the time that I was growing up, I heard a young new President, John F. Kennedy, issue this challenge to all Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

These values seem to have less influence today than they once did.

Today, it often seems the prevailing philosophy is “get what you can from your country any time you can.”

We are losing nuclear families right and left, often the result of divorce or births out of wedlock. As a by-product, we are suffering a decline in discipline and societal consciousness of right from wrong, which in turn leads to more poverty, more crime and a loss of the competitive edge that America once held over the rest of the world.

Presidents John Adams and James Madison over several occasions declared our Constitution was made only for a moral, informed and productive people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

The virtues I mentioned earlier—family, community, faith—erosions of these are all connected with the challenges we face today. It is our duty to teach the next generation there is something higher, something greater than me, us, them or immediate gratification.

At another crossroads in our nation’s history in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln told Congress, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

Fellow Bar members, as we embark on a year of observing the 50th anniversary of the State Bar of Georgia, our job is to examine anything that threatens the Constitution and its longevity.

In these difficult times, if lawyers don’t stand up for the furtherance of the Rule of Law and the restoration of the values that made this nation great, who will?

As I mentioned earlier, our national economic challenges have a dramatic effect on us in the practice of law. That is why it will be critical for us to continue initiatives to help one another, like the SOLACE program started by Ken Shigley two years ago and the “How to Save a Life” suicide prevention initiative recently launched under Robin Clark’s leadership.

It is also why we will continue to reach out to the general public through our Cornerstones of Freedom education program and rejuvenate the Citizens’ Group established by Lester Tate several years ago. And it is essential that we build on our recent successes in the legislative process at the State Capitol and continue to work with our elected officials to enact laws that modernize and strengthen our justice system, measures that are in themselves economically beneficial.

Finally, through a newly formed Law & Economics Section, we as lawyers should weigh in on the causes of our moribund economy.

As we mark the 50th year of this organization, we will simultaneously celebrate the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. Next March, the State Bar will host a two-day national symposium on the Constitution—featuring a discussion with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and tentatively and hopefully Justice Stephen Breyer, two of the great legal minds of this generation who bring to the table distinctly different views of the Constitution and its application today.

David McCullough, the renowned historian, will join that symposium and speak about the Founding Fathers and the Founding Time.

We will also publish a history book on the legal profession in Georgia, a comprehensive account covering the nearly 300 years of progress from General Oglethorpe’s arrival at Savannah (when lawyers were banned) through the establishment of the Georgia Bar Association, followed by the arduous 40-year effort to unify the Bar up to and including the 21st Century-model State Bar of Georgia. This book will chronicle the many contributions of the Georgia lawyers who have worked from the founding to today to fulfill the constitutional promise of justice for all.

In that regard, we certainly have big shoes to fill.

This will be a year of thinking about what has brought us to this critical time and whether we, as a profession and a nation, are able to right the ship.

Consider that in 1789, the year that the U.S. Constitution was ratified, your pet squirrel could climb a tree no more than 225 miles from the Atlantic coast, and go all the way to the Great Plains from limb to limb, tree to tree, without touching the ground.

Thomas Jefferson thought it would take a hundred generations to populate this land from the east to west coasts. Because of the pioneer spirit that existed in those days, it actually took no more than five.

Without any kind of mechanical devices to assist them, the pioneers cleared forests, plowed the fields, planted the crops and built the roads. As soft as we have become today, would we have what it takes to withstand the conditions that our forefathers did? Do we?

I believe we do, because no matter what challenges have confronted our nation in the past—the Revolution, Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, presidential assassinations, the long Civil Rights struggle, political upheaval and 9/11—we have always been sustained by something called the American spirit and survived.

If these values can be recaptured, we will be able to deal more forthrightly with the problems we face today. As lawyers, we know that our Constitution can protect us only if we do our part to protect it.

The songwriter Gene Scheer captured this spirit in his “American Anthem,” written in 1998, sung at two presidential inaugurations and famously performed by Norah Jones in the soundtrack for Ken Burns’ World War II documentary “The War.”

Scheer said his patriotic lyrics were inspired by two things:

  • First, the way his parents met, which was on a picket line, protesting a YMCA that was not admitting African Americans, and
  • Second, the service and sacrifices of his relatives who served in World War II, including an uncle who was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and was held in a prisoner of war camp the last year of the war.

“American Anthem,” is a reminder of all that we have been given by providence and our forefathers and of the responsibilities that we have to the country.

To quote from the lyrics:

“. . . Each generation from the plains
To distant shore with the gifts
That they were given
Were determined
To leave more
Valiant battles fought together
Acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds
From which America has grown

Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you. . .”

Thank you, and may God bless the state of Georgia and the United States of America.