VIRGINIA — Is the “Rule of Law,” which is the very foundation of the nation’s legal system, absolutely protected?
Absolutely not, said members of a special panel of judges and attorneys at a Mesabi Range Community & Technical College forum Wednesday that discussed whether our judicial system is as vulnerable to a governmental power grab as was the case in Germany in the early-1930s. That’s when a demented painter and paper hanger — Adolph Hitler — was appointed chancellor of Germany and annihilated the democratic legislative branch and then set out to create a “Whatever you want me to rule” judiciary.
Panel members said maintaining the integrity of “Rule of Law” requires honesty by officials in positions of power and vigilance by the public to call out corruption.
If people are apathetic when faced with a break of trust by their elected and appointed officials, then they are complicit in endangering the “Rule of Law,” said federal Judge Donovan Frank, who was a Sixth District Court judge in Virginia.
The panel was presented in connection with “Lessons from the Third Reich: The Fragility of the Rule of Law in the Grip of Power and Evil.” It’s a public outreach project of the United States District Court of Minnesota in partnership with the college, the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Questions were solicited from students and were presented to the panel by Student Senate officers. Queries ranged from DUI laws to drug sentencing to sometimes quite specific child custody cases.
Panel members often tried to reroute the questions’ focus to the context of the presentation on any analogies of between Third Reich Germany of the 1930s and the United States today that would threaten the “Rule of Law” here.
One student asked what branch of government was the most susceptible to putting the “Rule of Law” at risk.
“Executive ... executive,” said Fred Friedman, chief public defender of the Sixth District Court. “They have the fewest checks and balances.”
Friedman also said public fear can trigger bad policy and open the door to unwarranted government control.
“People went crazy and nuts after 9/11 (terrorist attacks on the United States)” and the Patriot Act was passed with strong public support, Friedman said.
The chief public defender and Judge Frank then also pointed out the internment for four years of 210,000 Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan.
“People are capable of doing it (allowing the ‘Rule of Law’ to be suspended) when panic sets in,” Friedman said.
The panel was asked a question dealing with “Rule of Law” and members were urged not to have public apathy phrased within the answer. However, federal Judge Leo I. Brisboi said apathy can’t be ignored.
“We have the ability to address our wrongs, but it’s a fight all the time. It requires activism,” he said.
Other panel members were Sixth District Court Judge Gary Pagliaccetti, attorneys Grace Zaiman, Angela Sipila and Rachel Sullivan, and St. Louis County prosecutor Leah Stauber.
The outreach program at MRC&TC continues next Wednesday at 11 a.m. with the showing of the movie “Nuremberg” at the college’s theater. The film, which is about the trial of Third Reich leaders, was made in 1948. It was shown extensively in Germany, but banned in the United States.
The filmmaker’s daughter, Sandra Schulberg, will answer questions after the showing.