The rule of law is the "sword and shield" for United States citizens; it unifies and equalizes the nation and it must be respected by proper enforcement, said U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R- South Carolina.
As part of the U.S. Marshals Museum’s Winthrop Paul Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series, the congressman’s experienced views on the law and the delicate relationship between the judicial, legislative and executive branches drew applause and a standing ovation from 1,600 attendees at the Fort Smith Convention Center on Thursday afternoon.
He directly connected his speech to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the first speaker in the Rockefeller series held in February 2015. Gowdy said he only met Scalia once, for a dinner with a small group of colleagues. Scalia died in February 2016. Scalia fielded one question from each of the congressman at the dinner table. Gowdy asked what the court can do with “executive overreach.”
“Do not expect the judicial branch to do what the legislative branch is unwilling to do," Scalia told Gowdy.
“He was very pointed in his perspective on constitutional equilibrium,” Gowdy added. “Justice Scalia said our framers gave you powerful tools and punishments. The legislative branch can stick up for itself and you should. Do not expect the judicial branch to come in and referee fights between you and the executive branch because you will not exercise the powers the framers gave you.”
How would the nation look if there was no law, Gowdy questioned when telling the story of a woman from Sierra Leone speaking at an event he attended with his son at Spartanburg High School. The woman’s hands had been cut off by soldiers when she was 12 in the Sierra Leone civil war.
“They cut off her hands so she would never be able to fill out a ballot … never be able to fill out a name," Gowdy said. "She heard the soldiers laughing and telling her to go ask the president of Sierra Leone for a new pair of hands. ... This little 12-year-old girl asked herself, ‘What’s a president?’ … You never have to ask that question, no matter whether you like or won’t like any president in the history of your lifetime. You never to ask wonder what is it like to be run by lawless marauders.”
Gowdy went on to define the law, as he sees it, as “the most unifying, equalizing force that we have on our planet.”
“What else makes the richest person in Arkansas drive the same speed as the poorest person? The law. ... What made the successful person in Arkansas pay his taxes the same day as someone who is down on their luck in Arkansas? The law,” Gowdy said.
The former prosecuting attorney also said the law is both “a sword and shield” to access a right, or shield oneself from another citizen or the government.
“So you should take special care to respect the law, and the best way to respect the law is to enforce it,” Gowdy said.
There have been some admittedly “crazy laws” on the books, he noted, but the best way to see a law's "imperfections" is to enforce it.
“It disrespects the law to not enforce it," Gowdy noted.
When telling a personal story of a South Carolina police officer in his district shot and killed in the line of duty, Gowdy also thanked the U.S. Marshals Museum supporters for helping build a “living monument” to the men and women who enforce the law
U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation President Jim Dunn noted that Gowdy was invited to speak because he has been “deeply involved in several of the missions of the U.S. Marshals Service and is a nationally known advocate for enforcement of the rule of law and the Constitution.
In his introduction of Gowdy to the capacity crowd Thursday, Arkansas Third District U.S. Rep. Steve Womack called Gowdy a “colleague, classmate and friend,” and “among the most selfless in Congress.”
Gowdy, who was elected to the House in 2011 along with Womack, has also become a “YouTube sensation,” Womack said, for video clips taken of him questioning any number of political appointees.
“No bureaucrat in Washington wants to be cross-examined by him,” Womack said.
Dunn said the lecture series intends to highlight each of the three branches of government and the next lecture would address the executive branch. Due to the nature of in planning the lectures, Dunn expects the next lecture to possibly be in 2019.
“We have to go through channels, sometimes multiple ones, in order to get the right fit for the series,” Dunn said in an email. “I expect the next one to probably be that far off.
Question and Answer session
In a 15-minute Q and A session, responding to a question from Southside High School senior Blake Bulger, Gowdy said Congress was “far less partisan than one would think” and 434-1 votes simply “don’t get much attention.” Although his constituents are more apt to ask him to fight harder or ask tougher questions, Gowdy encouraged “listening to people with whom you disagree” and interacting in “the spirit of civility.”
To a multi-part question from Greenwood High School senior Garrett Spain regarding privacy rights, government surveillance and national security, Gowdy said he “greatly values law and order” and feels national security is the “preeminent function of government.”
“I’m probably going to reconcile that balancing different from other people based on my background,” Gowdy said. “If there’s going to be an overcorrection I’m probably going to overcorrect toward national security. Why? Because you do have free speech, freedom to have the government seek a warrant in most instances, freedom of a jury trial, right to council and not one of those rights is of much use to you if you’re dead.”
Gowdy also commented on the use of “classified information” in media outlets.
“You want your government protecting you,” Gowdy said before commenting on “things being leaked on the front pages of major newspapers that are supposed to remain classified and secret because they involve U.S. persons.
“This agreement that we’ve made with government that we will give you power but you have to treat it responsibly and safeguard our privacy, that agreement is subject to be renegotiated,” Gowdy said. “You want us to defend reauthorization programs, take the leaks seriously and do something about them. It’s a felony to desseminate classified information.”
For Greenwood Junior High School student Eden Adams’ question about how younger generations can become better citizens, Gowdy said he felt they were more accepting and understanding than older age groups and encouraged her to “not believe everything you read on your phones,” “never stop asking the question ‘Why?” and don’t forget to ask “How do you know that?” “Who says that’s true?” and “Just because if it is free … just means you’re not paying for it.”
Gowdy also urged an end to “demagoguery.”
“The fact that somebody disagrees with me doesn’t mean they are un-American,” Gowdy said. “Sometimes people just don’t agree with me and that’s OK. Find something to agree on.”