Bigotry in the law; bigotry in courtrooms

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Dec 13, 2006 Bigotry in the law; bigotry in courtrooms

Bigotry exists, and bigots do not automatically set aside their prejudices at the courthouse steps. The roots of bigotry are long and deep, and need to be understood as part of defending our clients in criminal court. In that regard, recently I blogged about a ghetto party hosted and attended by students at the highly-ranked University of Texas Law School and about the rampant presence of Confederate remnants in and around numerous Virginia courthouses without adding such counterbalances as images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I also blogged about a labor organizer who turned around young potential lifelong bigots and who showed them understanding rather than anger after they called his children "white N’s".

Today’s blog entry addresses bigotry in all three jurisdictions where I practice law and past bigotry on the Supreme Court itself.

Only after moving to Washington, DC, for law school in 1986 did I learn how closely Washington and Maryland resembled segregationist Virginia right into the second half of the twentieth century.

In Washington, DC, during the second half of the twentieth century, segregation was customary, including the segregation of black people to theater balcony seats and in restaurants. After reading Pauli Murray’s Song in a Weary Throat soon after its 1987 publication, I asked the owner of a longtime pharmacy near my law school about segregation at his own then-existing lunch counter. He told me that he refused to serve black people at his lunch counter into the 1950’s. He gave a convenient excuse: "If I served black people, the construction workers across the street would not have eaten at my lunch counter." Fine; put your money where your mouth is and let the construction workers eat elsewhere if they will not eat at an integrated lunch counter.

Maryland had rampant segregation right into the early 1960’s at the very least. Late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall grew up in Baltimore and experienced the rabid racism. He attended Howard Law School when the University of Maryland Law School barred black students; now Maryland’s international airport is named after him. He attended a segregated public school. In a television interview, he talked of a childhood experience where he could not find a colored-only bathroom in downtown Baltimore when he needed to urinate badly, so he went all the way home, and by that time the urine was running down his leg.

Maryland had racially segregated schools until the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that public school segregation was unlawful. It appears that Maryland was the first of the segregated states to implement the Brown decision.

Beyond the school walls, segregation continued in Maryland even after the Brown decision. In fact, Robert M. Bell — the Chief Judge of Maryland’s highest court — was arrested in 1960 and convicted for trespass in a Baltimore restaurant desegregation sit-in. The United States Supreme Court left it up to the Maryland courts to decide whether the intervening change in Maryland’s sit-in/trespassing laws would dictate a different result. Unfortunately, the Maryland Court of Appeals said no. Bell v. Maryland, 236 Md. 356 (1964).

What about racism on the judges’ bench? Late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black belonged to the Ku Klux Klan when a lawyer in Alabama. In a turnaround, on the Supreme Court, he supported equal rights and opposed racial injustice.

An earlier Supreme Court Justice, James Clark McReynolds, remained a rabid bigot while on the bench, to the point that he would leave the room when Jewish Justice Louis Brandeis spoke during the justices’ conferences.

We have a long way to go. Look no further, for instance, than Charlottesville, Virginia’s male-only — previously exclusively white — Redland club, near the courthouses, where some local lawyers still spend their time. 

Jon Katz.

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