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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks to Participants in the International Appellate Judges Conference


Welcome to the White House, everybody. I'm delighted that you all are here and very pleased to be sharing this platform, this stage, with two people for whom I have very high regard: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Justice of our Supreme Court, and then my own legal counsel in whom I have great confidence, Boyden Gray.

I wanted to single out for special commendation Judge Cynthia Hall, for all the work that you have done, ma'am, on making this a highly successful event and making this conference possible.

And, of course, someone else I think we all should thank for his role in the conference, and, of course, I'm talking about our Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who regrettably could not be with us today. He wanted to be here.

Rarely has the White House been graced by such distinguished talent. More than 100 chief judicial officers from around the world, chief justices representing most of America's 50 States and territories, and practically the entire leadership of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

I heard that Judge Souter might invite some friends to Washington for his hearing, but I never dreamed it would get out of control like this. [Laughter] Truly it is a great honor to welcome this extraordinary assembly to Washington and a great honor to welcome you here at the White House.

It's an historic visit for many reasons, yours. Your Washington gathering marks the first time this conference has been held in the United States. But even more historic than the place are the times. And your visit comes as the capstone of America's celebration of 200 years of the world's oldest continuous constitution and independent judiciary. And with what I call the Revolution of '89 just behind us, your conference also serves to commemorate the emergence of some of the world's newest democracies. And so, I'm especially pleased to welcome and congratulate those justices representing the new and more independent judiciaries of Central Europe and Central America and, yes, also our new friends from the Soviet Union.

More than 200 years ago, 55 Americans met late into the night during a sweltering hot Philadelphia summer, debating a document that would be adopted by the American people as the supreme law of the land. By common agreement, Americans chose to live not under individual dictate but according to the rule of law. Its greatest innovation, an independent judiciary that protects constitutional principles through judicial review of executive and legislative actions. And truly, the U.S. Constitution stands as one of the world's great experiments in freedom and diversity and one of the world's great milestones in the effort to be free of tyranny, to be just, and to be civilized.

The American experience is a continuing one, and our success as a nation that is ruled by law and not by men depends upon our continuing commitment to an independent judiciary, a judiciary that is not subject to the political whims, to the nation's changing political climate, but that will interpret fairly and impartially our Constitution and the statutes as adopted by the elected representatives of our people.

And in the American tradition, the key to preserving a truly independent judiciary is ensuring that the role of the judiciary, like the role of the government itself, remains true to its constitutional function. The role of our judiciary is not to set policy but to apply the law of the land as found in our Constitution and in our statutes. Our Supreme Court plays a role of referee; it does not make up the rules but rather applies the rules to the situation that comes before it. And thus, our judiciary is not a substitute, you see, is not a substitute for representative government; rather, it's a limitation on it.

I mention the historic times, and of course, it's also an historic week right here in Washington. Even as we speak, our constitutional experiment is unfolding up the street in the United States Senate, where America is engaged in the solemn process of the confirmation of a very fine and decent judge -- a judge who I hope and believe will be our next, our newest Supreme Court Justice.

My old friend and neighbor, and one who I think Sandra Day O'Connor admires as well, was the late and beloved Justice Potter Stewart. He was once asked to name the most important attributes in a judge. And he fired back without hesitating, ``Quality and competence, temperament and character, and diligence.'' Well, those attributes are exactly the qualities that I believe describe Judge Souter, my nominee to the Supreme Court. He's strong, incisive, has an independent devotion to the Constitution that was demonstrated during 12 years of distinguished service on the trial court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and in particular, on the supreme court of his State, the New Hampshire Supreme Court. And I understand that after the conference ends today many of you are going to go out to observe our State supreme courts in action. They are America's judicial laboratories, the court of last resort for most of our citizens' cases, the proving grounds for some of our most distinguished U.S. Supreme Court Justices: New York's great jurist, Benjamin Cardozo; William Brennan, who has just stepped down after 34 years on the Supreme Court; and of course, Oliver Wendell Holmes.

But as we gather to talk about the rule of law this week, there's another subject that I'm sure is on everybody's mind, and I've said many times in the past year that we've entered into a new era in world affairs. And the international response to Iraq's naked aggression against a tiny neighbor proves just how true that is. As I said in Helsinki, just 6 days ago when I was over there to meet with President Gorbachev, if the nations of the world acting together continue to isolate Iraq and deny Saddam the fruits of aggression, we will set in place the cornerstone of an international order more peaceful, stable, and secure than any we have known.

One of the leaders of the world's last great unified alliance before the chilly descent of the cold war was Dwight David Eisenhower, a man that occupied this House as President of the United States. And Ike understood the stakes when he said: ``The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.''

And as we stand here today commemorating more than 200 years of constitutional government in America, we look back with pride on the justice that we've achieved as a nation and the promise that has been offered the world through this one simple, magnificent idea: the idea known as the rule of law. Because like many of the principal nations you represent, all today who embrace the rule of law stand as a powerful force for justice at home and as a powerful example for justice abroad. I salute this great tradition, its rich heritage, and all the fine men and women gathered here who are dedicated to justice and the rule of law.

I want to thank you all once again for coming to the White House. Congratulations on what I'm told has been a highly successful conference. And Godspeed, all of you, in your service in the cause of justice around the world. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:35 a.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to C. Boyden Gray, Counsel to the President, and Cynthia Hall, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit and chairman of the Committee on the International Appellate Judges Conference.

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