Because I was otherwise obsessed, I missed noting yesterday a true landmark in law and ethics. It was that date in 1954 when a unanimous the Supreme Court handed down the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Linda Brown, a young African American girl had been denied admission to her local elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because of the color of her skin.
Written in 1896 as the KKK roamed the South, the SCOTUS ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson held that “separate but equal” accommodations in railroad cars conformed to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. Plessy was interpreted as justifying segregation in everything from buses to water fountains to elementary schools. The white school Brown attempted to attend was far superior to her the segregation-mandated alternative and miles closer to her home, so The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took up Linda’s cause. Thurgood Marshall led Brown’s legal team, and on May 17, 1954, Plessy was overturned after 58 years as “the law of the land” despite the siren call of stare decisus. The opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren declared that “separate but equal” was an unconstitutional doctrine in ringing terms: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” A year later, the Supreme Court published guidelines requiring public school systems to integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
1. Prudent and responsible, if not courageous. Speaking of SCOTUS, newly confirmed Justice-in-Waiting Ketanji Brown Jackson sat for an interview by the Washington Post and was asked about the leak of Justice Alito’s draft opinion in the Dobbs abortion case. Conservative media was triggered by this section:
Q: What was your response when you when you saw the draft leak [of a Supreme Court opinion that would strike down Roe v. Wade]?
A: Everybody who is familiar with the court and the way in which it works was shocked by that. Such a departure from normal order.
Q: Do you think it was a good thing or a bad thing?
A: I can’t answer that.
Q: What do you think about peaceful protests outside of Supreme Court justices’ homes?
A: I don’t have any comment.
Charles Cooke at the National Review writes, “This ranges from somewhere between cowardly and sinister, much like the failure of the justices to issue a joint statement that echoes the chief justice’s condemnation of the leak and statement of determination to identify the leaker, and that condemns the protests, which violate federal law.”
Wrong. SCOTUS justices should not issue opinions on such matters. Her statement that the leak was a breach of the normal order was factual, and breaches of normal order in any institution are unethical. She was right to go no further. As for the demonstrators, some of them may be arrested at some point, and a statement by a Supreme Court Justice regarding their conduct could interfere with a fair trial.
Her responses give me more reason to trust Jackson’s judgment, not less.