Law Day: From the beginning |

Law Day: From the beginning

A recent story in The Union described “the annual Law Day” visit by fifth-graders to the courthouse. In fact, “the annual Law Day” has a long and larger history as a national legal event. Originally set on May 1, it has evolved over many decades.

Law Day Origins

May 1, also known as May Day, can be traced to spring celebrations of fertility in Rome and later throughout Europe. After the Russian Bolshevik revolution, May 1 became associated with International Workers Day. It became American Law Day in the 1950s.

“In a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive it must choose the rule of law.”
President Dwight Eisenhower

President Dwight Eisenhower, at the suggestion of his legal counsel, Charles S. Rhyne (then American Bar Association president), first proclaimed May 1 as Law Day in 1958. Referring to the atomic bomb and Cold War, Eisenhower stated, “In a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive it must choose the rule of law.” Congress codified the Law Day celebration in Public Law 87-20, on April 7, 1961.

That law states: “Law Day, U.S.A., is a special day of celebration by the people of the United States —

(1) in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries; and

(2) for the cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.”

The ABA promoted the celebration by organizing national events and assisting local bar associations and courts that present educational programs on our Constitution, our liberties and our Judicial System.

In 1969, the ABA began designating annual themes for the national and local Law Day events. The first theme was Justice and Equality Depend on Law and You! Other themes have included 200 Years of Liberty and the Law (in 1976) and Celebrate Your Freedom: Protecting the Best Interests of Our Children (in 2001).

Law Day in Nevada County

At least as early as the fifth-graders’ court tour, in 1978 local attorney Raymond Shine and then Nevada Union High School English teacher Mike Blake decided that the high school should recognize academic excellence with a trophy, such as athletic teams were given.

Shine, then president of the Nevada County Bar Association (NCBA), suggested that students create portfolios of their best writing, which their English teachers would submit to local lawyers to read and rank. The top three writers were awarded a savings bond, and the best writer’s name was inscribed on a large trophy, stored in the Nevada Union High School trophy case. When Blake transferred to Bear River High School in 1986, that school also joined the competition, as Truckee High School eventually did. Winners were recognized at a NCBA event, accompanied by their teachers or parents.

Over time, any local high school student could submit an essay on the ABA theme. The trophy and bonds gave way to scholarship money for the top three best writers. The NCBA has continued to sponsor the contest as part of Law Day, honoring the rule of law.

High school teachers used the essay contest as a writing assignment. Lawyers reviewed and rated a larger number of essays, selecting the three best writers who were ranked, not just on writing skill, but also on their skill in analyzing the current legal theme or issue.

Due to the timing of May school exams and activities, the event was moved to autumn, when students were involved in writing assignments but before their busy spring schedules.

In 2001, the NCBA, the courts, the schools and Kiwanis were recognized by the ABA for outstanding Law Month events, including the fifth-graders’ court tour, the high school essay contest, Court of Appeal proceedings at the high school, a luncheon and a legal community dinner with Justice Scotland of the Court of Appeal.

The ABA theme for Law Day 2013 is Realizing the Dream, Equality for All. The NCBA is again sponsoring a special reception and dinner event today at the Holbrooke Hotel, beginning at 5 p.m. Third District Court of Appeal Justice Elena Duarte will be the guest speaker, joined by local judges and lawyers. Student essays are being anonymously ranked by a team led by attorney Steven Baker. Winners will again receive cash scholarships. Limited admission at $50 includes a buffet dinner. Reservations are required at 530-272-7207 or email to

Nevada County resident Joseph J. Bell, J.D., is a member of the Association of Certified Family Law Specialists.

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