- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

HOPKINTON, R.I. At first, it was a boyhood passion for reading about Abraham Lincoln. Decades later, Rhode Island's Supreme Court chief justice feels blessed that his legal profession and his avocation as a top Lincoln scholar and collector have become almost inseparable.
"I used to spend my 25 cents for lunch money on used Lincoln books," recalled Frank Williams, 61. "If he could [rise from humble beginnings], so could I."
Justice Williams' court chambers and home are shrines to Lincoln, and his legal opinions and conversation often are sprinkled with Lincoln quotations.
"His devotion to Lincoln is like Catholics do with patron saints, it drives him, he wants to be like Lincoln," said the Rev. Joseph Horgan, a longtime friend.
Justice Williams, who became chief justice last February, starts each day, before sunrise, in a home library filled with some of the 22,000 books, photos, sculptures, legal manuscripts and Lincoln ephemera he has collected over a lifetime.
It includes rare items such as a book on Lincoln's famous debates with Stephen Douglas, signed by the former president; letters and other signed Lincoln items worth thousands, and more common items like a badge used by Lincoln campaign supporters.
When confronted with criticism or difficult decisions, Justice Williams turns to Lincoln for inspiration.
In December, he promised a fight with Gov. Lincoln Almond, a fellow Republican, over a proposal to slash nearly $1 million from a $3 million courthouse renovation.
"This is not a war," he said. "It's the friction and abrasion of politics; that's what Lincoln called it."
Justice Williams estimates using 100 quotations attributed to Lincoln in his legal rulings since joining the bench in 1995.
One recent reference in a Supreme Court decision clarified an observation about disguised legal motions.
"How many legs does a dog have if you count his tail as a leg? Four. You can call a tail a leg if you want to, but that doesn't make it a leg," Justice Williams wrote.
His current projects include a bibliography of Lincoln titles published since 1865. A collection of his essays and papers will be published by Southern Illinois University Press this year.
Justice Williams also is collaborating on a book upholding the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is popularly remembered as having ended slavery.
However, author Lerone Bennett Jr. has denounced the importance of the order in ending slavery, saying it didn't actually free slaves because it applied only to areas outside Union control. Lincoln, he says, wanted more to prolong than dismantle slavery.
Justice Williams takes such criticism of his hero in stride.
"He was a racist, but so was the whole country," he said, adding that he viewed Lincoln as a great leader but "something of an enigma" who personally disliked slavery but often felt compelled to respect laws that allowed it.


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