MAY 26, 2005


At this hour, on the 26th of May 1930, William Nelson Cromwell presided over a program of dedication for the Home of Law featuring an audience of nearly 1,000, addresses by 11 guest speakers and messages from 10 others. This roster of dignitaries included such legendary names as: Cromwell, Charles Evans Hughes, Harlan Fiske Stone, Samuel Seabury, Benjamin Cardozo, John W. Davis, Charles Burlingham, Henry Taft and of, course, Cass Gilbert, the architect who left an indelible imprint on lower Manhattan.

No where in the stenographic record of those proceedings is there one word that even hints at any reception or celebration that accompanied the program. In planning this event, we decided to change that. And so we accepted the gracious invitation of Father Hoke to hold the ceremony in historic St. Paul’s – and, immediately following the program, we will cross Vesey Street where the Home of Law awaits us with food, drink and a social time appropriate to this milestone. In other words, for a party. And party we will!

There is no better way to mark this anniversary than to use the Home of Law for its ultimate purpose: joining together the leaders of New York’s bench and bar in celebration, not just of the building, but of the profession and the principles to which it was dedicated on that day 75 years ago.

Mr. Cromwell would have been immensely pleased to look out and see, as I do, this amazing array of judges, lawyers, members of the NYCLA family and the legal community gathered to pay tribute to his vision. This is truly a roomful of dignitaries. Then again, by now you know this about me: because of my love for this profession, I consider that one lawyer sitting alone in a room is a roomful of dignitaries.

So while I view all of you as dignitaries and members of the extended NYCLA family, I want to acknowledge some very special guests, including: NYCLA past presidents; past Cromwell Award winners; federal and state court judges; presiding justices; elected officials, particularly NYCLA member and Council Member Alan Gerson, for his leadership on the critical issue of right to counsel for the indigent; and bar leaders from near and far.

My special thanks to our Guest Speakers – each of whom will be given a proper introduction: the leaders of New York’s federal and state judiciary; the City’s leading lawyer, representing the Mayor, a renowned author, educator and architectural critic, and the preeminent leader of the New York Bar who will deliver the 2005 Hughes Lecture.

The genius of the Home of Law, both as structure and concept, is that it bridges the past and the future. Cromwell understood that the roots of the American legal system, grounded in a love of liberty and resistance to tyranny, are its strength. That explains his quest to secure the land directly across from St.Paul’s Chapel and his insistence that its design complement the exquisite architecture of the Colonial period. He wanted to achieve an indelible link to the patriots of the Revolution, as an enduring source of inspiration for all lawyers and for all time.

At the dedication, Cromwell said that he wanted young lawyers as they entered the gates of the Home of Law, in generation after generation, to derive inspiration from the “patriotism, freedom and sacrifice” of the Nation’s founders. Another speaker, Judge Samuel Seabury, referred to the “great lawyers of an earlier day” who “toiled within a stone’s throw of the building,” and saw it as a place to “keep alive in the future that spirit and tradition.”

And so it was that Location and Design served the building’s purpose. Any doubt as to what that purpose might be was resolved on December 7, 1929 at the cornerstone laying, when Cromwell dubbed the building the “Home of Law”:

–  a place to support the work of what NYCLA founder Joseph Choate called “the great democratic bar association”:

–  a welcoming Home for the entire bench and bar, without regard to race, religion, gender or ethnicity to promote NYCLA’s mission;

–  a center to gather daily in the pursuit of justice;

For three-quarters of a century, NYCLA and its Home of Law have fulfilled that vision – striving for full equality, seeking to elevate ethical standards and preserve the independence and integrity of the judiciary, and, above all, seeking to expand access to justice.

Through wars, depressions and recessions, blinding blizzards, sweltering summers and the unspeakable calamity of September 11, 2001, the Home of Law endures as a symbol of the law itself: strong and stable, able to withstand the onslaught of powerful forces, but also adaptable to change and innovation. Constructed at a time when its designers could scarcely have imagined such advances as central air-conditioning, let alone a wireless internet, the building has proved its resiliency throughout the decades.

But just as Cromwell’s eye was focused keenly on the future, so too it is our responsibility, as custodians of his vision, to pave a road to the future.

To do so, we must now confront two great challenges.

As is the case with every human creation, the seasons take their toll. And that is true with our Landmark Home of Law. It cries out for rehabilitation and reconfiguration to meet the needs of a 21st-century bar association. The time has now come when we must invest in renovation and restoration. That is our first challenge.

Generous as Cromwell was, he could not have succeeded without broad support from the New York legal community. At the dedication ceremony the Association’s Treasurer, Benno Lewinson, acknowledged the support of 3,000 individuals, including hundreds donating relatively modest sums that he duly characterized as “the most valuable” because their relatively greater sacrifice evidenced an intense spirit of support for the Association’s mission.

And so, appealing to the same spirit that enabled the original construction, I am tonight, on this anniversary, announcing a Centennial Capital Campaign, beginning now and lasting through NYCLA’s 100th Anniversary on April 21, 2008. Our goal will be to raise $5,000,000 for the support of the Association’s endowment and building fund.

This Campaign is the culmination of several years of planning and restructuring, capped by the Board’s adoption of a strategic plan. And I am pleased to tell you that our efforts are already off to a soaring start – thanks to a generous pledge of support by the amazing law firm that William Nelson Cromwell founded. Please join me in saluting Sullivan & Cromwell.

The dedicated members of the NYCLA and NYCLA Foundation Board of Directors have also demonstrated their personal support. Thanks to their extraordinary generosity, we begin the public phase of this campaign approaching 100% participation by our Boards and with total pledges of nearly 1/2 million dollars. As in 1930, some pledges are large and some are more modest, but all are invaluable. Please join me in expressing our gratitude to NYCLA and the Foundation Boards.

I hope that when we commence the public phase of this campaign, the NYCLA family and the broader legal community will answer our call.

But it is support of another kind that is indispensable to the preservation of the aspirations and principles that underlie the Home of Law – support that is measured not in dollars but in values. That is the second of the great challenges that lie before us.

Caring for our magnificent Home is only part of our mission for the future. There is a far more insidious danger than the ravages of time threatening the Home of Law.

The American justice system, its lawyers and judges, its centuries-old bulwarks and protections for even the weakest among us, its time-tested framework for equality under the law, faces multi-faceted, episodic attacks from an array of determined ideologues and interests. With unthinking recklessness, they aim to turn the judicial system on its head and to contort age-old constitutional principles to advance narrow goals.

We lawyers need to be on the front lines in the struggle against this threat to the principles to which this Home of Law was dedicated.

It’s sometimes easy to turn a blind eye to the battle raging around us. We live in a curious age when even the most important issues are reduced to daily fodder for the entertainment culture that seems to define our times. It starts when we permit the trivialization of fundamental precepts into some kind of mindless inanity offered for our amusement.

The pattern is a familiar one: sound bites become late-night one-liners, and then grist for the ubiquitous pundits and lawyers-turned-TV stars who will say anything to boost their ratings. And in no time at all, and small wonder, Americans tell pollsters that juries are bad, the Bill of Rights is too broad, and judges are out of control. Sensationalism and distortion, aided by instantaneous and unfettered communication tools, can reduce the public perception of even the most thoughtful, temperate judicial decision to a target of scorn and derision.

No stretch is too far, and those who would dismantle our legal system know this. Save the spotted owl and they demand an end to environmental laws. A successful plaintiff scalded by hot coffee at McDonald’s and they want to eviscerate our civil tort law. A couple of troubled kids go on an insane shooting spree in a high school and they ascribe blame to judicial decisions upholding the separation of church and state upon which the country was founded. And in the wake of the despicable attack that occurred on this block, our Nation embraces a rash curtailment of domestic civil liberties and a toleration for international human rights violations that somehow seem at utter variance with the principles for which our citizens are fighting and dying overseas.

When the ridicule and anger reach a boiling point, more quickly these days than ever before, the custodians of our way of life, the lawyers and judges who serve the system, become the problem, a toxic scenario fueled by media and vote-hungry politicians – of all political stripes. Even the core values secured by those patriots who rest in the graveyard of this Chapel, and in so many other locales throughout the country, are challenged in ways that were once unimaginable: judicial independence, separation of powers, separation of church and state, are all subject to a rising tide of turbulence.

Think of the atmosphere in which we live today. What does it say when a federal judge whose husband and mother were murdered by a twisted malcontent upset with her rulings has to go to Capitol Hill to plead with lawmakers to tone down the rhetoric and respect our system of justice and the men and women who serve it?

Is it really appropriate for public officials to incite anger against our judiciary, then with a wink say they didn’t mean it? Can we afford to stand by idly by in the face of irresponsible demagoguery? I think not.

We must staunchly protect free speech; but we should boldly condemn corrosive speech. Judges, constrained by ethical strictures, need the help of the profession to repel efforts to intimidate the judiciary. We who share this Home of Law, and all the other Homes of Law in our community, must stand up, take steps to repel this threat, or, like the aging infrastructure of a fine old building, our precious justice system will erode from within.

It matters little whether your bar association is housed in a landmark building, an office tower or a rented suite, or whether it travels from office to office with the periodic election of new leaders.

Nor is it important whether it is on Vesey St. or 44th St. or Elk St. in Albany, 148th St. in Jamaica, Remsen St. in Brooklyn or the Grand Concourse, — the great challenge for our profession is, as Cromwell saw it, to perpetuate the spirit of freedom and sacrifice exemplified by America’s founders.

Cromwell did not build the Home of Law as a mausoleum or a social club. He built it as a gift and a challenge to future generations to advance the law and the principles of America’s constitutional democracy into an uncertain future.

Let us all accept the challenge. That is the only sure way to preserve the noble purposes of this or any other Home of Law.