This morning a statue of Judge Thomas M. Cooley was unveiled and dedicated on the Lansing campus of the Thomas Cooley Law School. I was asked to say a few words, and this is what I said:
Forty years ago, the Michigan department of corporations told me that I couldn’t use the name “State College of Law.”
My old law professor, Stanley Beattie, suggested the name Thomas M. Cooley. It made sense for a lot of reasons. Cooley was a lawyer, a Judge, a scholar, an author, a teacher, a philosopher.
What's more important, he was a patriot who understood the genius of the federal republic known as the United States of America.
His is a legacy of thought. A legacy of principle. A legacy of truth.
Thomas Cooley taught us the simple, undeniable fact that the words of a written constitution mean what they say and say what they mean.
Cooley taught us that constitutional law does not evolve like the common law. He said that any judge who allows public opinion to influence his interpretation of the constitution is guilty of reckless disregard of official oath and public duty.
Cooley’s voice clearly condemns the notion, taught at so many law schools today, that the Supreme Court of the United States is somehow empowered to decide when the culture supercedes the constitution.
If the statue we dedicate here today could speak, it would certainly tell us that the people who ratified the fourteenth amendment in the middle of the nineteenth century never intended to legalize sodomy or abortion.
That’s not what they meant. That’s not what they said.
Cooley taught that ours is a government of laws and not of men; that authority is something different from raw power; that words have meaning and that meaning matters.
This law school was founded to teach practical scholarship in the law, to prepare men and women to serve as ministers of justice in their communities. We never aspired to imitate the Harvard Law School where International Law is a required course, but constitutional law is an elective.
We let other law schools prepare their graduates to be social engineers. We wanted our people to be lawyers. Real lawyers. Practical, ethical counselors and advocates. Men and women who would grace our profession and bring to other occupations and enterprises a thorough understanding of the American legal system.
That we dedicate this statue amidst the cacophony of a national election year is especially significant.
The strong face of this strong American should remind us that liberty and law are inseparable and that the campuses of this law school enshrine the fondest hopes of every new generation of students.
True leadership is not found in sound bites and political commercials. It is not confined to hash marks and tweets.
True leadership is the ability to inspire people. To teach, To encourage. To capture our imaginations and prompt us to look up, to reach up, to be better than we are.
Not all leaders are on television.
Some of them are dead. Like Thomas M. Cooley.
But they still can lead. Just as Judge Cooley does, and will continue to do here at the law school which bears his name.
Cooley spoke in long sentences and elegant phrases. Unfortunately, too many of us haven’t the patience to read and appreciate his words.
He gave a speech at the dedication of the lecture hall at the University of Michigan Law School on Thursday, October 1, 1863. It was in the midst of the Civil War.
He said something that day which ought to be pounded into the talking heads that cackle on Fox News and MSNBC.
“In the life of nations,” said the Judge, “conservatism and progress must be found to go hand in hand… for better or worse, the world is ever changing…if we would truly conserve what is good in the present, we must do so by relieving it of what is bad.”
Laws can become outdated. Changes have to be made, Cooley insisted. But he warned us that if skilled hands refuse to do the work, we can expect people who do not understand or appreciate our heritage of law and freedom to saddle our nation with wrong headed ideas and unworkable schemes.
In the words of Thomas Cooley, they will “cut and hew in their ignorance until the beautiful fabric which has required ages to build and perfect may be utterly defaced by vandal hands.”
Which prompts me to conclude with a public service announcement.
For several years, I have been organizing a convention on the Internet to propose amendments to the federal constitution. It is open to any registered voter in the United States. It’s free.
You don’t have to be a constitutional law expert. What we want is a critical mass of common sense to vet every proposal.
We now have over 300 delegates from 46 states. We need more. Lots more, if our work is to be taken seriously.
And there is much work to be done. If the uproar over the Health Care case doesn’t prove again how badly we need a non partisan system of judicial selection in the Supreme Court, I don’t know what it will take to arouse the American people.
If an approval rate of less than ten percent doesn’t prove that reform of the United States Congress should be high on our national agenda, I have to wonder how our citizens can ever expect to be fairly represented in the nation’s capital.
And if three generations of an imperial presidency and seven or eight undeclared wars all around the world are not enough to make us wonder whether our nation is really an exception to the bloody narrative of human history, I have to ask what will?
Convention USA needs lawyers, law students and law faculty. We need intelligent, spirited dialog and debate. Look us up at conventionusa.org.
Thomas McIntyre Cooley stands here with his hand extended. He’s reaching out to all of us. He wants to give us a hand. I say let’s take it.