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Judge Boyce Martin (retired) of 6th District Court of Appeals spoke to Lincoln Academy social studies students on Constitution Day (September 17, 2015). He spoke about the challenges of interpreting the Constitution and how that has impacted his long career as a lawyer and judge in Kentucky.

On September 17 Federal Judge Boyce Martin, Jr. (retired) of 6th District Court of Appeals spoke to Lincoln Academy social studies students about his long career in public service as a lawyer and a judge. Judge Martin is a native of Kentucky, where he spent his career, and now spends his winters. In his retirement he summers in Pemaquid.

Lincoln Academy students in economics, government, and US History classes had the opportunity to hear Judge Martin speak about his work on various precedent-setting legal cases, including cases that influenced the Affordable Care Act, affirmative action in college admissions, the death penalty, and civil rights.

Judge Martin’s work on the death penalty, a punishment that he called “an ineffective, cruel, and unfair part of the justice system,” was integral in founding the Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to free wrongly convicted criminals.

He also wrote the opinion that ensured that the Affordable Care Act would be scrutinized under the Commerce Clause rather than the Taxation Clause of the US Constitution. This opinion was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012.

Judge Martin’s decision in the University of Michigan affirmative action case was later reversed by the Supreme Court “so most of my ideas were lost.” Since that time affirmative action has been upheld by other cases. “You may not appreciate this yet,” he told the gathered students, in explaining why he thinks affirmative action in college admissions is legal and should be continued, “but diversity… makes a big difference in what your ideas about the world will be when you are grown. I think it is wonderful that you have so much diversity right here at Lincoln Academy.”

Since September 17 was Constitution Day, the 228th anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution, Judge Martin made a point of talking about his own views on the Constitution. “I believe in interpreting the Constitution in the world of 2015, not literally as it was written in 1787. I believe this great document lives and grows with time.”

“I was very pleased that Judge Martin addressed this question of strict and loose interpretations of the Constitution,” said Lincoln Academy Social Studies teacher Kelley Duffy. “Students in the U.S. Government & Politics class are currently beginning their examination of the Constitution and this question of interpretation is one we will return to throughout the year. It was great for students to see that this is a very real question for people today.”

Essie Martin is a junior in one of the US History classes that got to hear Judge Martin speak. She was particularly engaged by his ideas about criminal justice and incarceration “He talked about how we have more prisoners than any other [developed] country in the world, and we asked him how we should fix this. He said if he were President the first thing he would do is release all the prisoners who are not dangerous to the public. He talked about mandatory minimum sentencing, and how it sends people to jail for 10 years, even if they have small infringements.”

Judge Martin was particularly passionate about the changing nature of politics and the rule of law. He talked of the lost civility in political decision making, “when Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan would go out for a drink after a long day of negotiating, lo and behold, they would come up with a compromise. That doesn’t happen nowadays… If you think Mitch McConnell is going to sit down after work with anyone aside from his own donors, you are whistling Dixie in the dark.”

“We are collapsing onto ourselves,” he continued, “We have a political system where public officials won’t talk about issues of substance. Right now in Washington there is very little willingness to sacrifice for the common good… We have lost our willingness to rely on the rule of law, which is supposed to be neutral, legally correct, and fair. Instead, partisan politics come first, and the rule of law is continuously interpreted to mean what politicians want it to mean to serve their own purposes.”

History teacher Brian O’Mahoney was happy his students got to hear Judge Martin speak about the very real issues confronting the judiciary today. “The students enjoyed him very much. He was thoughtful and obviously aware of the responsibility that a judge should bring to the bench. I was pleased that he included in his answers references to the history of the judiciary. It was a great start to these students’ study of their country’s legal history.”

Robert Breckenridge brought his morning U.S. History classes to the judge’s presentation. The students discussed the experience afterwards and shared that they were most impressed with the wide range of social issues that came before the court on which Judge Martin served. Boarding students in this class were impressed with how accessible he was and how frankly he spoke about what he viewed as the big political issues challenging the nation. The entire class agreed that “it was a valuable and worthwhile experience” as they embark on their study of our country’s history.