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Bell Urges VLS Students to Pursue King's Dream of Justice For All

January 19, 2011

For Robert Mack Bell-who delivered the keynote address at Vermont Law School's Martin Luther King Jr. Day observation on Jan. 18-lawyers have two images in the public consciousness.

The first comes from the oft-quoted line in Shakespeare's Henry VI-"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Bell considers it not an attack on lawyers but a reflection of their role as society's guardians of justice.

Bell said the second image of lawyers he holds dear was voiced by Robert F. Sweeney, the first chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, a position that Bell now occupies as that court's first black chief judge. At the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, Sweeney asked a German judge how a civilized society had allowed Adolf Hitler to come to power, dismantle that nation's legal system and orchestrate mass murder. "Where were the lawyers, where were the judges?" Sweeney asked. The German judge gave three reasons: the German people didn't know about the concentration camps, they were afraid of the Nazis and, finally, that Germany didn't have a cultural tradition of challenging authority.

Sweeney accepted none of those reasons, Bell said, and neither should any civilized society, especially its lawyers, who are trained to uphold justice, truth and order.

Bell has been a civil rights activist since 1960 when he and several other students participated in a sit-in protest and refused to leave a segregated restaurant in his hometown of Baltimore. The students were convicted of trespassing in a case that was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1964 case of Bell v. Maryland, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which cleared the students of all charges in 1965. Bell, who received his JD degree from Harvard Law School, has been a judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals since 1991 and its chief judge since 1996.

He said America's quest for justice and equality didn't start with King and that civil rights aren't the entitlement of one group. "It's been a constant fight involving different groups at different times" in U.S. history, he said.

The quest started with America's colonialists and the framers of the Constitution who sought freedom from English rule. "Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't the first to dream of justice, equality and basic dignity," Bell said.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are flawed documents, he said, but they set the stage for later progress toward equality, including the civil rights movement.

Bell said King's role was to remind the nation that all people are created equal, a position he memorably made in his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 when he said America had defaulted on its founders' promissory note guaranteeing the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all people.

"Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,'" King said. "But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

Bell said the civil rights pioneer understood that America's democratic system was built on the rule of law, an independent judiciary and the "very special fraternity of lawyers who since the birth of our country have protected our lives, property and liberty. The Constitution would be dry, hollow and indeed lifeless without lawyers, who are the flesh and blood of the law. Lawyers are the key to our republic's survival."

Bell said he was confident that King would praise the nation's progress toward equality, but that he would continue to push for full equality and the training of lawyers who are committed to the cause.

"Law and order's duty is to establish justice, but obstacles can block the flow of social progress," he told the VLS audience. "Be true to yourself" in pursuing justice and upholding the rule of law for all people.


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