YARMOUTH — In the aftermath of President Trump’s hastily written and issued executive order that sought to immediately stop the immigration of already vetted people from certain mostly Muslim countries, Americans across the nation spontaneously swarmed to U.S. airports to protest this assault upon our Constitution.

Among the throng were hundreds of volunteer lawyers, who sat down with detained émigrés, often all night long, on airport floors, recording the facts of their cases, and rushing to court to block the order. Among them were professors and law students from my alma mater. This scene reminded me why I had wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. I was very proud.

Lawyers are often derided as among the least trusted professions, right after politicians and used-car salesmen. But when you are in trouble, who do you call? And when the nation is in trouble with a president who seems to have little respect for the rule of law, to whom do we turn to protect our civil liberties?

As Linda Greenhouse, a columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote, “The judiciary is all that stands between the president and constitutional chaos.” Lawyers are the gateway to the courts. For lawyers of every political stripe, the president’s implication that his will and unilateral order should trump, so to speak, the ruling of a “so-called judge” were fighting words.

Lawyers are trained to respect courts, even when they disagree with their rulings. When we disagree with a law, we are trained to follow or challenge that law, using the body of existing law, in court. The alternative to the rule of law is the absence of a way to peacefully settle disagreements, whether over a contract, a traffic violation or immigration policy.

Ultimately, previous presidents also bowed to the authority of this co-equal branch of our government, even when their political future was at stake. Thus, President Richard Nixon followed the Supreme Court order to release his tape-recorded conversations relating to Watergate; George W. Bush readily acceded to rulings on Guantanamo, among other orders.


A president’s refusal to obey a final court ruling would pose a constitutional crisis. The courts have no power of their own to enforce. Rather, they rely on America’s core belief in fidelity to the law. If the ban is struck down, will Homeland Security border bureaucrats defy the president, even if they agree with his position? Would the military? It is not hyperbole to liken the crisis to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. It was the Nuremberg trials that established the principle that following orders is not always a defense.

What differentiates the United States from those forsaken nations is the strength not only of our independent judiciary and the civil society that produces lawyers and citizens willing to put their liberty on the line to protect our democracy and the rule of law. It is the shared values of the American people. Will we be up to the task?

Sometimes I wonder. Many people who supported Donald Trump in the election did not take his most outrageous statements seriously. Ban all Muslims? Build a wall to keep out those raping, murdering Mexicans? Exaggerations intended to grab headlines and votes. they rationalized. What they cared about was restoring jobs and respect for the class of people who had been ignored by the coastal elites. He would bring back jobs, they figured.

Now that he has packed his Cabinet with Wall Street billionaires intent on fattening that sector, are they worried? Do they care that a man dedicated to destroying it heads the Environmental Protection Agency? Perhaps they think discarding Clean Air and Clean Water regulations will bring jobs back to coal country. But the nation has moved on – coal is no longer the fuel of choice, for a number of reasons. And in this area, too, regression will be fought hard in the courts. Environmental lawyers and law students are gearing up to save the planet with invigorated legal rescue efforts.

A democracy rests on common values. Most of us pay our taxes because it is the law, not because the Internal Revenue Service is standing over our shoulders. We follow the law not just because a penalty is theoretically possible, but because we understand that it is part of our duty as good citizens. At least I hope this is our shared belief. If I am wrong, we are in for some dangerous times.

— Special to the Press Herald

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