Lawrence DiCara AJC/Learned Hand Award Acceptance Speech

September 22, 2005

Author(s): Lawrence S. DiCara

by Lawrence S. DiCara, Honoree

by Lawrence S. DiCara, Honoree

Many thanks to all of you for joining us this evening and for so much more. I want to thank my family, as well as my professional family at Nixon Peabody, and all who served on this Committee and made this evening—a combination class reunion, Bar Association meeting, Bar Mitzvah and political rally—such a success. I also want to acknowledge Norman Leventhal and Robert Beal, who have been my allies in many civic good deeds. I am honored by the presence of the elected officials and judges in attendance. Finally, thanks to Dick Clarke, my boyhood friend and debate partner for enlightening us this evening. My mother is not able to join us this evening, but sends her warmest regards to all, especially to our speaker. I was reminded of her recent comment that Dick “ was always such a good boy”, that she couldn’t understand why all those folks in Washington hadn’t listened to him! I recall that old proverb “when you choose your friends, aim high.”

Felix Frankfurter once said “I never think any speech written by somebody else, for somebody else, is any good.” Therefore, I have taken out my trusty Dictaphone over the past few weeks, thinking it would be best to prepare a few remarks for this evening.

Many have suggested that life is a lengthy book. This is an exciting chapter in my life. Last week we celebrated the wedding of our niece; early in October, Teresa and I will celebrate our 15 th anniversary; Tuesday evening, I was honored by Boston Latin School—a “forshpeis” to this evening. Next week, mother turns 90. Without any doubt, had some of us been gathering 20 or 30 years ago, who could have imagined that, at 56, I would have mellowed, at least a bit, and be the proud father of three 8-year-old daughters and a 12-pound Dachshund who can do no wrong?

I frequently tell our girls that I learn something every day, and I do.

Although I was not blessed with any uncles or big brothers, or aunts or big sisters for that matter, I had a number of role models who taught me well. Joe Moakley taught me how one can serve in public office honorably. I worked very closely with Norman Leventhal, both to build the Park at Post Office Square and to create the Artery Business Committee. Then, for more than a decade, I had the honor to work down the hall from David Pokross, who even in his eighties and nineties, exemplified what it meant to be a good lawyer. Both Norman and David followed the words of Mr. Spock to “live long and prosper.”

I learned much from many of the teachers at Boston Latin School. At the top of the list were Sid Rosenthal, who taught me how to write and how to think, and Aaron Gordon, who was among those who taught me to appreciate history.

I learned from our parents who entrusted their children with some very basic beliefs: Trust in God. Honor the law. Remember your roots. Study hard. Be loyal to your friends. Respect others. Take pride in your work. Be independent. Those were good lessons, which I will do my best to pass along to our three daughters.

The more I have reflected on my heritage, however, the more I am convinced that much of who I am and what I stand for goes back to a small barbershop at the corner of Edgewood Street and Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury. It was at that location where, for many decades in the middle of the last century, my maternal grandfather—Lawrence Alibrandi—after whom I was named—presided. He rented a storefront from Kasonof’s Bakery. I can still smell the bread!

One does not need to read the well written volumes of Professor Putnam and Professor Skocpol to realize that today we are a different nation. We are no longer a people who pause on Saturday or Sunday to gather with family; soccer leagues and birthday parties and shopping now occupy our weekends, our cell phones a constant and annoying companion. We are both beneficiaries and victims of technology.

The barber shop in those days was an important gathering place, without a telephone or air conditioning. In those years, Roxbury was an extraordinary melting pot. All were welcome at Lawrence ’s Barber Shop. “ All are welcome .” It is a simple message that our parents passed along to me and which Teresa and I are passing along to our children, and one which AJC has certainly embraced.

We assemble on behalf of an organization committed to pursuing justice and advancing democracy, pluralism and tolerance. Human rights are not an abstract theory, but how you treat the person sitting next to you. Let me elaborate.

Our children can memorize those famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr. - that he had a dream that someday his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character - yet as long as there is discrimination premised upon who anyone’s grandfather was, or how someone looks, then we have a long way to go. A truly tolerant society would not condone reference to the Sopranos in a presidential debate, any more than one to Shylock or to a paddy wagon.

Here in Massachusetts , where we are proudly in the forefront of the nation in advancing gay rights, we should also welcome immigration, notwithstanding the protestations of those who would prefer to exclude and marginalize those who may not look, speak or dress like we do. We should welcome refugees from foreign countries, as my father was welcomed, and open our arms to our own citizens who find themselves victims of natural disasters. The poor among us should no longer be “invisible people” to those in positions of political leadership. I believe in the words of the Old Spiritual, that all should be able to “sit at the welcome table.”

Perhaps none of us can change the world, but we can change our own worlds. We can start by changing housing policies in our own communities which are often anti-family and anti-children. To paraphrase an old Biblical phrase, “easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle” than to get a building permit to construct multi-family housing in most affluent suburbs.

It is time that we all work to avoid the temptation to sequester ourselves into culturally-gated communities where everybody looks the same, acts the same and thinks the same. Perhaps our world will never be as diverse as Roxbury when my grandfather presided at his barber shop, but I believe it hardly evidences tolerance to live in the Martha Stewart/Abercrombie & Fitch world to which some aspire.

Receiving this award has also provided me an opportunity to find out more about Learned Hand. Like me, he was a Harvard graduate who was the father of three daughters—albeit, one at a time. He was a devout Christian, as well as a self-proclaimed tight-wad. I can envision a man who sang in church loudly, lectured his children frequently, and turned down thermostats routinely. I expect this was a man who stood at attention whenever the National Anthem was played, who frowned upon overdue library books and whose desk was as orderly as his mind. To Learned Hand, as to Justice Brandeis, loyalty and honor were inseparable. He was known as a defender of free speech at a time when it was not popular. Learning all of this has made this evening even more humbling for me, given that I went to law school 4 Falls, 3 Springs and 2 Summers; part-time days and part-time nights. Learned Hand was also extraordinarily productive well into his eighties—before which time I hope to be through paying tuitions.

Learned Hand may have been a captive of a society dominated by white Protestant men with two last names, but his mind was not. His view of America was similar to mine. It is not a white nation, it is not a male nation, it is not a Christian nation. No one segment of the population has any right, certainly not God given, certainly not constitutionally granted, to impose their own beliefs or lifestyles upon anyone else. If Judge Hand were joining us this evening, I expect he would suggest that more political energy should be exerted defending our Civil Liberties than questioning the personal lives of Abraham Lincoln and Sponge Bob Square Pants. I expect that many during his time considered Learned Hand an “activist judge”. I do not believe those are bad words. I believe that activist judges are good judges because they seek to interpret the law for the public good.

We find ourselves at the beginning of this new century at an extraordinarily perilous juncture. Many of us had thought that the separation of church and state was an issue settled by the election of 1960.

In the midst of that campaign, a group of more than 150 Protestant ministers and laymen led by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale stated that a Catholic President would be “under extreme pressure from the hierarchy of his church” to make sure U.S. policies were consistent with Vatican views. On September 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy responded in an address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He said “I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President . . . how to act, and no Protestant Minister would tell his Parishioners for whom to vote. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affairs.”

That standard is now under attack by an alliance of fundamentalist preachers and originalist judges.

Bible-waving pastors speak of a God who is spiteful, limiting and unforgiving, a God who divides the saved from those who cannot be saved. As distorted as this view might be, what is even more distorted are the scriptural underpinnings which they appear to be blindly following. I am not a biblical scholar, but I have been to houses of worship of all varieties thousands of times, including more than my share of shuls. I know that there are some constants in both the Old and New Testaments and I expect in the scriptures of other traditions as well—feed the hungry, comfort the mourning; care for the sick; do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Did not Isaiah remind us “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people?” I find it difficult to accept an interpretation of scripture which denigrates the poor, which divides people according to their heritage and which suggests that the sick are being punished for their sins. I cannot comprehend a God who would oppose legitimate scientific research.

I also do not concur with the thinking of those like Justice Scalia, a man with whom I share a heritage as well as a profession, that our Constitution is not a living, breathing document, but rather was frozen in time almost 220 years ago. There is something marvelously incongruous with the originalist theories propounded by Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas and others. My reading of the Constitution of 1787 would suggest that Justice Thomas would most likely not be permitted to vote, no less be a judge, and that Justice Scalia’s family, at least upon landing in America , would probably be in the same situation. I do not believe that was the true intent of our nation’s founders. I expect that Learned Hand would agree with what Justice Brennan wrote in 1985: “The genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles.”

The vignettes are scary. John Ashcroft conducts prayer meetings at the Justice Department. A pastor expels members of his church for supporting a Democratic candidate over a Republican. A chaplain at the Air Force Academy is dismissed for questioning a colleague who suggests to entering freshmen that unless they are “Born Again”, they will roast in hell. Congress is called back into session on a weekend to vote on a bill prescribing medical treatment for a dying woman. Pat Robertson proclaims his own foreign policy. Rick Santorum speaks. And those are only some of the chapters being written as we retreat from that standard of separation of church and state which many of us have come to accept, respect, value and fight for.

We should be appalled at the efforts of clergy and judges, and the elected officials who support them, who engage in selectively strict interpretation of the Constitution and of scripture to redefine our nation and restrict our civil liberties. We should not blur the distinction between what should be rendered unto Caesar and what should be rendered unto God.

It was written many years ago, “A little patience, and we shall see the people, recovering their true spirit, restore their government to its true principles.” Those words were written by Thomas Jefferson referring to the Alien and Sedition Acts. The nation endured the Alien and Sedition Acts. We outlived Mitchell Palmer. We survived the McCarthy era. We did so because men and women of good will serving in public office did not yield to the loudest voices.

Over 200 years ago, the founders of our nation resisted efforts to create a theocracy. Today, in this new century, we must maintain that differentiation between church and state, and resist efforts to create a New American Theocracy.

It is not the America envisioned by the founders. It is not the America protected by Learned Hand. And, my friends, it is not the America we should pass along to our children.

Thank you.

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