Thursday, February 9, 2012

Supreme Court Decision a Day: Brown v Board of Education

So I recently started reading Supreme Court opinions. This initially started when I was busy proving someone wrong on the internet, but I was quite surprised to find that they're (mostly) very human-readable. I suppose I just assumed that SCOTUS opinions were going to be arcane and incomprehensible, and so I had never read one. When Alyssa got me a Kindle for my birthday, I decided that it was time I begin a more in-depth reading of these opinions. With that in mind, I downloaded something from the Kindle store that claims to be "The 50 most cited Supreme Court Cases". I plan on going through these at a rate somewhat slower than one a day, but that's not as good of a title. (Some of these I learned about in school, of course, but that only covers about half a dozen of the fifty.) I will mostly not be taking in any outside sources or outside commentary. Also, be warned that if you're a lawyer you'll probably find this commentary to be clumsy and unprofessional.


Held: Separate is not equal.

The first couple of cases in this collection are all really famous ones, so I'm going into this one with a bit more foreknowledge than I will be for the later ones. This is the case that overturned the doctrine set by Plessy v Ferguson - and good riddance. The beginning of the case goes over some of the history of both education and the law. In this case we see some of the slow evolution that always seems to move Supreme Court towards some monumental decision. Prior to this, there were a number of cases where facilities and services were separate but not equal - the black facilities always being worse (and cases which established at which times separate had to be equal). This one basically just comes out and says that even if you have equal facilities, budget, and staff, that's still not enough, because there are some things that are intangible but still required for true equality.

There are two things that I really like about this decision (aside from the outcome, which I of course agree with). The first is that it's unanimous - with a decision as large and as powerful as this one, it's nice to know that there weren't some holdouts to sour the whole thing with a dissent. Of course, there's a good reason for the unanimous decision, which isn't quite as feel-good.

The reason that the Court has lifetime appointments is so that they don't have to worry about re-elections if they make an unpopular decision, and so that they're relatively uncorruptable. But there's this concept called "institutional legitimacy" which says that the Supreme Court is only trusted insofar as the public believes that it makes fair decisions. If the Supreme Court makes bad decisions, the public will stop trusting them, and if the public stops trusting them then politicians will just start ignoring what the Supreme Court says. President Andrew Jackson famously said of the decision in Worcester v Georgia, "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" That sounds really badass, and it's the sort of thing that people love about Jackson, until you realize that he was talking about forcing the Native Americans off their lands and killing them. I hate Andrew Jackson. The same thing happened with this decision in a number of states because of shitty people, but it would undoubtedly have been much worse if this decision had come down 5-4 instead of 9-0.

So since they knew that Brown would be unpopular, the de-segregation Justices waited and plotted until they could wrangle a unanimous verdict with the force of their legal and emotional might. It's slightly less feel-goody, but I still really like that about this decision.

The second thing I like about this decision is that it came in advance of the Civil Rights movement had really gotten started - it's a rare instance of the government anticipating the turning of the times - something that seems to be the sole province of the Supreme Court. And at the same time, I don't like that it took so long to correct something that's so clearly wrong. I have a tough time with the past; I've heard it said a number of times that you shouldn't judge people because they're a result of the society that they grew up in ... but I always do. The thing is, the reasons for opposing segregation are the same today as they were then. The reasons for opposing slavery today are the same as they were three hundred years ago. In fact, you can read abolitionist texts from that side that say pretty much what I would say now if someone inquired why that's wrong. These same arguments were available to the people in the past, and they chose to reject them. So I'm forced to conclude that the large majority of Southerners throughout American history were just assholes, rather than victims of their upbringing. So while I really liked Brown, it makes me kind of sad.

References to Other of the 50 Cases: Plessy v Ferguson.

My Favorite Bit:
To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.
That's quite powerfully written, don't you think?

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