The 56th Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Lecture


On February 9, 2021, Dean Matthew Diller delivered the keynote speech at the 56th Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Lecture. The lecture was titled “Stress-Testing American Democracy: An Initial Assessment of the Health of our Democratic Institutions in the Trump Era.” Dean Diller shared remarks on the state of American Democracy and the road to building its strength back. Judge Robert Katzmann introduced Dean Diller at the lecture. Read Dean Diller’s full speech here and watch the full lecture here.

This is an important moment to think about Hughes and the values that he stood for and fought for.  It is important because these values are being challenged on a daily basis and much of what we have assumed to be foundational principles of American democracy are now at risk and imperiled.   Hughes’ values appear today not as stodgy appeals to rectitude, but as a call to action.  What would he say, looking at the present state of the nation?

Our nation is at an inflection point – a new administration has just taken office, drawing to a close the four years of a presidential administration unlike any before.   It is far too early to draw definitive conclusions about the Trump experience – historians will do so for years to come – and let’s face it – we all have a lot to process.  But I want to offer a number of observations about what we have learned from it about American democracy at this point in our history. I won’t dwell on the seizure of the Capitol and impeachment – a disastrous denouement if ever there was one, but rather I will focus on the daily erosion of our norms and institutions over the past four years that paved the way for the insurrection of January 6th.

As we close the Trump presidency, it is vital that we examine how our democratic institutions responded to the challenges posed by the acid test of a Holmsean “bad man” as president.   Most of what the past four years revealed is deeply disturbing.

The threat to prosecute political enemies, however, is a powerful weapon in itself, even if indictments never issue. 

The President’s threats and actions to carry them out are major breaches of the norms and traditions of American democracy.

In addition to looking hard within the legal profession, we also need to reach beyond ourselves.  Projects like the Second Circuit’s initiative Justice For All: Courts and the Community – which opens up our courthouses so children can learn are a superb starting point, as was the Second Circuit’s partnership with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to host a major national convening in October 2019 on the role of the courts in promoting civic education.  And as a law school dean, I know that we in the academy have a mission to explain our system to the public, to use our expertise to improve it and to convey to the next generation of lawyers an understanding of their own role upholding the values and culture of democracy.    


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