Republic or democracy? Future lawyer wants to know what’s best
ASK JUDGE SMITH
By Layne Smith
Special to the Outlook
Q: Judge Smith, I’m in middle school and want to be a lawyer when I grow up. Which do you think is better, a republic or a democracy? Sue
A: Sue, you have the perfect name for a lawyer! All kidding aside, I’m delighted that you want to be one. Now, let’s discuss republics and democracies.
The most noteworthy ancient republic was Rome, before it became an empire. In fact, the word republic is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which means “the laws.” The Roman republic was governed by a senate, who established its laws. Roman senators were wealthy male aristocrats. They weren’t elected by the people.
Both our federal and state governments are republics. When I became a lawyer, and later when I became your county judge, I swore an oath to support, protect and defend the constitutions and governments of the United States and of the State of Florida. I have always lived faithfully by those oaths. As a future lawyer, one day you’ll take a similar oath when you become a member of a state’s bar.
In our republic, the people don’t directly vote on every political issue. Instead, through the democratic process, we elect senators and representatives who decide political issues and establish public policy on our behalf. While the majority tends to get its way, “the laws” protect us from the “tyranny of the mob” that might otherwise follow. Both the constitution and our courts’ faithful application of the rule of law prevent the majority from running roughshod over minorities and people with unpopular views.
The most noteworthy ancient democracies were the Greek city-states. The word democracy is derived from the Greek words’ demos and kratein, which means “the people to rule.”
In a democracy, political issues are decided by a majority vote of the people. Democracies don’t protect minorities and people with unpopular views. Also, while democracies might be practical in small city-states, democracies are too unwieldy to function in large nations. Imagine how impractical and expensive it would be to hold national elections on every political issue that confronts us. Much less the potential for recounts.
In 1787, the constitutional convention met in private. When it adjourned, the public did not know which form of government the delegates were recommending. When asked by a curious Philadelphian if it was to be a republic or a monarchy, Benjamin Franklin responded, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
Two centuries later, President Reagan rightly described the American people and our government as “the last best hope of man on earth.”
My direct answer to your question is less important than what you think. Given my explanation of the two, which form of government do you think is best?
Sue, behave, study hard and respect your elders. I invite you to schedule a day during your summer vacation to visit the courthouse and shadow a judge. Stay curious and think for yourself!
J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge who often speaks and writes about civics, the law and the administration of justice. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.