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Horton Law Firm Blog Learned Hand: The Spirit of Liberty

Learned Hand: The Spirit of Liberty

I like to read.  Of course, I like to write also, but this is the first blog post in a month. And likewise, I started and finished only one book in June: Learned Hand: The Man and The Judge by Gerald Gunther. Judge Learned Hand was a name first encountered in law school; although he became a judge in the early 20th Century, his fifty years on the bench produced many valuable opinions, some of which end up in law school texts.  He was a non-partisan yet also a progressive, who believed in judicial restraint even when he was in the majority.  In this regard, Judge Hand would be one of a kind today.

However, if there is one thing that you should know about Judge Hand, it is his Spirit of Liberty speech, which read in part:

What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it…What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

We should all strive for such a spirit, in which we are not to0 sure that we are right, we seek to understand the minds of others, we attempt to set aside our biases, and we help the least among us be heard.  Law practiced in such a spirit will benefit from seeing life in a brighter light–different insight into the problems, disputes and tragedies suffered by people. Such a perspective is of great value to clients grappling with a difficult choices and consequences.

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