As an American who absorbed the civic lessons about the government – its three branches which were put in place by the framers of the Constitution to insure that our government would be a democracy of the highest order – I grew up thinking that when all failed for people who were looking for justice, there would always be the United States Supreme Court. I grew up believing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was a place where anyone in trouble could find justice. Even the titles of these federal agencies brought a sense of comfort. When all else failed , there would always be something in our government which would protect the poor, the innocent and the forgotten.
But as I have grown older, I have been disappointed, over and over again, as I have watched the Court, for the most part, protect the interests of the government. In spite of the banter about the justices not being partisan, they have seemingly too often been aligned with the government and particular political parties. I was stunned when I read that U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote, in the Dred Scott decision that there “were no rights of a black man that a white man is bound to respect.” I was stunned and hurt to learn that in the Buck v. Bell case, where a attorneys were fighting the right of an institution to forcibly sterilize people whom powers that be thought to be “feebleminded” that a former president of the United States, William Howard Taft, served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the constitutionality of states carrying out the procedures. In that case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, considered by some to be this nation’s finest legal mind, aligned himself with his opinion that eugenics was a right thing in order to create a perfect race of people, and he wrote against Buck and her case. Buck was poor and a victim of the heinous belief system of eugenicists, which was popular in the 1920s, and Holmes wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
There have been times, for sure, when the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on behalf of a marginalized group of people. Brown v. Board of Education is probably the best known, when the Court ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, and the ever controversial Roe v. Wade ruled on behalf of women who declared that they, not the state, have a right to choose what they do with their bodies, but for too many cases, there has been no legal protection for the marginalized, not in local and state courts, and certainly not in federal courts.
If it is true that the Constitution was and is a magnificent document – and it really was – it is also true that too often, the tenets of that document have been woefully ignored. Among those tenets is the principle that all Americans were entitled to have speedy trials tried by a “jury of their peers.” And yet, in case after case, American courts have tried African Americans in trials which have had all-white juries, where black people have been deliberately excluded – and that is, if they have had a trial at all. Far too often, black people have only had to have been accused of a crime and a lynch mob has come and dragged them out of jail cells before a trial was ever held, killing them on the lawns of court houses or sometimes, in the deep woods – and none of these people have ever been arrested or held accountable.
It is a scary and real thought that there is no place where you might find justice in this land which some say is a “nation of laws.” It would be better to say that it is a nation of laws for those who can afford to pay for justice. Adam Cohen, in his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court,American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, notes that the justice system in many cases has failed to adhere to the principle contained in the Hammurabi Code, which teaches that “the purpose of law is tonsure that the strong do not harm the weak.” That has not been the case, not in this country or elsewhere. Those who apply the law have been in too many cases totally biased and blind to the justice desired by “the least of these.” As Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said that it is true that life is better for an individual if he is “rich and guilty” than “poor and innocent.”
That fact leaves little room to believe in the justice system. In fact, that fact belies the reality that the ideal and the real too often do not intersect, and that despite the lofty words contained in our written documents, justice for many is simply not going to a reality. The poor, the left out and the left behind are just out of luck in this “land of the free and home of the brave.”
A candid observation …