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Introducing Tom Coffin Essays: An Ignatian Response For Our Times

We at the Milwaukee Renaissance have been advancing the notion of an “Ignatian Response to the Ferguson Tragedy,” now widened to An Ignatian Response For Our Times. We employ the term “Milwaukee” metaphorically, and not as the city so named, inspired by the meaning of the term among Native American nations, i.e. “where the waters meet.” Tom Coffin is a superb essayist, and happy to begin actively sharing his thoughts on various topics over the years. I am hoping this platform might accelerate Tom’s sharing his rich life’s experiences and observations in memoir form.

Education: SLUH class of 1963; BA 1967 St. Benedict’s College; J.D. Harvard Law School 1970.

Tom believes his 4 years at St. Louis U. High, a Jesuit school, 1959–63, had a more profound impact on his life than his 3 years at Harvard, in the 3 tumultuous last years of the 1960s, i.e. 1967–1970. He chose public service over private millions, and has served as:

  • Assistant U.S. Attorney 1971–1992 in San Diego, California and Eugene, Oregon

  • Chief of the Criminal Division in the San Diego office

  • Appointed as U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Oregon in 1992 and served until my retirement in 2016.

  • Presently serving on recall as an active Magistrate Judge on a part-time basis.

  • Adjunct Law Professor at the University of Oregon Law School for approximately 20 years teaching Criminal Procedure and federal mediation courses.

  • Among the cases Tom has presided over was the landmark case of Martin v. PGA Tour, wherein he ruled that the ADA applied to professional golf and that it was reasonable to modify the rules of the Tour

Musings on the constitution

I have a practice at Naturalization Ceremonies to quiz newly admitted citizens regarding their rights and obligations under our Nation’s Constitution-the document which sets forth the foundational framework of our entire system of government and the relationship between the government and “We the People”. I welcome them into this framework, and especially welcome and thank them for the diversity they bring to the United States, which is a great source of strength for our country. Finally, I remind them that they have an obligation to study and become familiar with the Constitution, that they are sworn to protect it and its ideals from any enemies, foreign or domestic, and that they must be vigilant in protecting the rights guaranteed to the people by the Constitution because those rights, if ever surrendered, will not be recaptured without an epic struggle such as our Founders experienced to produce a republic that has endured for 228 years thus far.

[St. Louis Post Dispatch essay on Tom’s welcoming speech to new citizens.]

Given the times we now live in, my admonition to our new citizens is fitting for all of us lest anyone, whether citizens by birthright or naturalized, take for granted the liberties and rights we enjoy because of this remarkable document and through apathy or inattention allow the Constitutional framework to be eroded by modernist grumblings that the Constitution is archaic or obsolete, and that the check and balances of co-equal branches of government (Congress, Executive, and Judiciary) is an obstacle to a strong and effective government

We must never forget that the Founders of this nation were intimately familiar with a monarchical, or autocratic, form of government and the resulting tyranny that accompanies such a model of government - e.g., imprisonment without jury trial, punishment for “seditious” speech, judges who lacked independence but who served only at the pleasure of the king, denial of a representative voice in government, and other violations of basic human rights that the Declaration of Independence characterized as endowed by the Creator and unalienable, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Thus they drafted a Constitution that was designed to ensure a representative form of government with formidable obstacles to the reincarnation of a tyrannical autocracy. Hence the checks and balances of co-equal branches of government, each with the ability to counter excessive exercises of power by the other branches. Rather than being an “archaic” document, the Constitution remains vibrant and youthful in the 21st century an remains steadfast on course. If it is an “obstacle” to the dominance of any one branch of government, it is precisely because it was intended to be an obstacle. The Founders’ system is working and their prescience is praiseworthy.

The Constitution, pursuant to the First Amendment, also establishes the press as a critical overseer of the three co-equal branches of government by guaranteeing freedom of speech so citizens can be fully informed of the actions and decisions of those branches. Secrecy is the weapon of tyranny. Disclosure is the antidote of “We the People”.

Without exception, every autocracy has clamped down upon and striven to eliminate freedom of the press. Without exception, every autocracy has doubled-down on efforts to control the information flow and spoon-feed the people only what it wants them to hear through state-controlled media.

A free press, the “Fourth Estate” in the balance of power constitutional structure, has been acknowledged as vital to a democracy by virtually every president, jurist, and member of Congress since our nation was founded. It is not an “enemy of the people”. It is decidedly the ears and voice of “We the People”.

Finally, I will address the “Rule of Law” which safeguards the structural integrity of our Constitutional framework of government. In a nutshell, no one is beyond the law, be he prince or pauper, president or senator, police officer or judge, rich or poor. We are all - each and every one of us with no exceptions - subject to the Constitution and laws of this nation.

A critical component of the Rule of Law is the ability to thoroughly investigate potential violations of the law by an independent body that is untouchable from influence, pressure, or suppression by any subjects of the investigation. Allowing obstruction or the frustration of an independent investigation by an official who is a subject of that investigation was one of a list of grievances that our Founders expressed in the Declaration of Independence when they complained that the king “has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers” and for protecting his troops for prosecution for criminal acts against colonists with “mock trial(s)”.

The Rule of Law is the very Spirit of the Constitution. Any breach or assault on that Spirit is an attack on the Constitution itself

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster. Based on work by Godsil.  Page last modified on August 03, 2017, at 06:02 PM

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