About two weeks ago, students at the Yale and Howard Law Schools jointly held a conference here in New Haven commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in which the Court ruled that “separate but equal” is inherently unequal. Since then, lawyers and public servants have considered the case to be a springboard from which other civil rights advances have been born. But as renowned speakers like Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law and original litigants Constance Baker Motley and Robert Carter repeatedly emphasized, this initial legal step toward equal rights for all Americans was only the beginning of the fight for justice: Theodore M. Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, aptly remarked in an opening address, “If you think the struggle is over, think again.”
In the last four years, however, a group of Republicans led by President Bush has taken our country in the opposite direction, using ultra-conservative judicial nominations and extremist legislation to curtail the liberties that Americans have cherished for many years. In America, judges have the powerful privilege and responsibility of safeguarding the rights enumerated by and emanating from the Constitution. And as our country has grown older, both legislators and judges, on the whole, have taken active steps toward enlarging the group of rights that are extended to all Americans under the Constitution. In the 50 years since Brown, we have seen the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which guarantees women the right to choose. One would hope that this trend would continue, that our government would fight tirelessly to ensure that all of its citizens are considered to be equal by the law. The Bush administration, though, seems to have a different vision.
As their duty requires, presidents have the power to appoint justices to the federal bench. In the last year, Bush has exercised this authority to nominate extreme right-wing jurists who seem to prefer taking our nation back to the early 20th century. Perhaps most offensive was the nomination of Charles Pickering to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Pickering has been accused of being a racist, and as a state lawmaker, allegedly held anti-voting rights and anti-abortion stances. Even more deplorable, in 1994, Pickering seemed to defend cross-burning by reducing the sentence of a man who burned the symbol on the front lawn of an interracial couple. With such a deplorable nominee in front of them, Senate Democrats successfully held an overnight filibuster to turn this racially insensitive man away. Yet, Bush refused to compromise and would not return to Congress with a more moderate nominee, or at least one that recognizes equality of rights; rather, the president abused his power of recess appointment to put Pickering on the bench without any type of confirmation, at least until the end of the next session of Congress.
Furthermore, the Republicans’ attempt to turn back the clock on civil rights does not stop there. In addition to Pickering, Bush has nominated people like Priscilla Owen and Claude Allen to other benches. Allen, awaiting another chance at the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, has supported anti-choice statutes and believes that abstinence is the only solution to AIDS and teen pregnancy. (Allen was also press secretary to Jesse Helms during his racist campaign in 1984.)
But it does not end there, either. Earlier this year, a group of right-wing Republicans proposed House Resolution 3290, the “Congressional Accountability for Judicial Activism Act of 2004.” Under said proposal, Congress would be given the power to overrule any finding by the High Court that an act of Congress is unconstitutional by a two-thirds vote. Besides the fact that this failed bill is apparently unconstitutional, it is blatantly preposterous. Any student of American government would tell you that the Judicial Branch was set up independent of the Executive and Legislative as an additional check on the actions of those two other branches. To permit such a change would be completely contrary to the spirit of our democracy, and would allow a set of extremist politicians to dictate every facet of our law without proper reason or knowledge. Luckily, the bill will go nowhere, but it still remains a strong symbol of the growing movement in American politics to roll back the democratic success our country has enjoyed in the last 50 years.
Now, more than ever, it is important that we engage the full public in the politics of our time. Besides political junkies like myself, very few Americans are aware of the fight against our civil rights by this Republican administration. And while not as much is as stake as in the 1860s or 1960s, one never knows where this trend could lead us. As students and active citizens, it is our duty to appeal to our peers and insist that our representatives fight to preserve those rights that have been enshrined by the courts and Constitution.
Ravi Agarwal is a sophomore in Branford College.