The Rule of Reason
We drove into Washington D.C. an hour or so before sunset, and found the capital drenched in beautiful golden light. The three of us had been stuck in dreary-gray cold and snow for so long that the almost-spring weather begged us to come out to play. So play we did. We turned cartwheels on the grass at the Capital building and walked down the steps at Arlington Cemetery to stretch our legs. By the time we got to the Supreme Court building, we were awed by the sight. The always-imposing white pillars were absolutely glowing in the sun's final rays, and the blue sky behind the court literally took our breath away.
The sight of the Supreme Court made me think about the historical court cases that had been tried there. The Supreme Court stands as the guardian of our Constitution. When citizens challenge a law that they feel is unfair, it is the Supreme Court that has the final say on whether or not the law violates the Constitution. This makes our laws flexible, and applicable to the changing needs of our growing country. One of the cool things about the Supreme Court is that they have the ultimate job security: the nine judges are each appointed by the President for life-long terms. Since there is no election procedure to hold them accountable to the fickle face of public opinion, these top judges are able to follow their consciences, rather than answer to special-interest groups. When they present a united front, this special position enables the Supreme Court to make important national changes.
One group of justices in particular did more to advance personal liberties in our country than any court had before. For 16 years, beginning in the 1960's, the court was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Warren had been a well-liked, three-time governor of California before being appointed to the Supreme Court by President Eisenhower. With the addition of Warren, the court finally had five liberal justices, which was the simple majority needed for any decision to pass. Because of their similar viewpoints, and Warren's unifying leadership, many ground-breaking decisions were made. For one thing, segregation was declared unconstitutional, and Martin Luther King's peaceful protests were complemented by legislation officially supporting Civil Rights. The Rights of the Accused, voting districts, and school prayer were also re-evaluated by the Warren Court.
For a first-person description of these impressive justices, I called my uncle from a rest-stop pay phone on a Pennsylvania freeway. At 29 years of age, my uncle Barry Kroll had stood before the Warren Court to appeal the case of Escobedo vs. Illinois. His client was Danny Escobedo, who had been arrested in Chicago and charged with murdering his sister's husband. The police took a confession from him before they would let him talk with his lawyer, who was standing outside the interrogation room. Using his forced confession as evidence, Escobedo had been convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. But the U.S. Constitution says that no man has to incriminate himself for a crime. Since Escobedo wasn't told that he "had the right to remain silent" and he wasn't given his right to an attorney in the police station, my uncle appealed Escobedo's case to the Illinois State Supreme Court. They lost that appeal, but many people still felt that Escobedo's basic Constitutional rights had been violated, so they refused to stop there. Escobedo's last chance lay with the United States Supreme Court, so my uncle took the case to Washington D.C. The Warren Court was split 5 to 4 in their ruling, finding in favor of Escobedo. Justice Warren declared that a suspect must always be told his or her rights because "the defendant who does not ask for counsel is the very defendant who needs counsel." This controversial ruling upset many people who believed the court was giving the upper hand to criminals.
In 1964, another case regarding the rights of the accused came to the Federal level. In Miranda vs. Arizona, the Warren Court laid down more concrete rules for dealing with prisoners. These cases are still considered among the most controversial ever handed down by the Warren Court. While many liberals agreed with the court's decision, other people blamed the ruling for rising crime rates, claiming that by being forced to "read" a suspect his rights, the cops were being "handcuffed" themselves, with no room to extract confessions. Warren answered this complaint with reason. He believed that reminding an accused person of his/her rights was "just a question of common humanity that nobody should want to avoid. The hardened underworld types already know their rights, but the poor and illiterate need this protection."
My uncle told me that arguing in front of the Supreme Court was fantastic. He assured me that it was the pinnacle of a lawyer's career, and was like nothing else he'd ever experienced. But when the landmark Escobedo case was over, his life went back to normal. He returned to Chicago, while the Warren Court continued to hand down policy-changing decisions in case after revolutionary case.
Another appeal that came before the Warren Court dealt with how many votes a district should be able to cast in an election. It had been 60 years since the voting rules had been revised, and with people moving away from farms and into cities and suburbs, representation in Congress was not proportionate. The gerrymandered districts hadn't been challenged because powerful political parties controlled the districts, and weighted votes enabled them to stay in power, while preventing growing urban populations from acquiring too much political clout. Finally though, the citizens of Tennessee were fed up with this unfair system, and in 1962 their case (Baker vs. Carr) came before the Warren Court. In a 6 to 2 decision, the court decided that districts should be recounted with the census every ten years, so that every person's vote would weigh the same amount in an election. His reasoning was that "legislators represent people, not trees or acres." Each person, in effect, would receive one vote. In hindsight, Warren would call this decision "the most important opinion rendered during his 16 years on the Supreme Court."
The topic of school prayer was another significant issue that the Warren Court stood strongly on. In the case of Engel vs. Vitale, the court expanded the First Amendment, separating Church and State. They ruled that a school cannot mandate prayer in the classroom. Warren simply felt that "it was no business of Government to compose official prayers for any group of American people to recite." This meant that there would be no more Bible readings or Lord's Prayer allowed in any public classrooms.
Three's Company! / Some people may believe that three's a crowd, but we would politely point out that they're wrong.
Although there was an enormous outcry from Christians who wanted their children to be surrounded with religion, the Warren Court had made themselves clear. Our beautifully diverse nation is made up of so many different types of people with so many differing religious beliefs, that no one religion should be invoked in a public place. President Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, supported the Warren Court decision by reminding people that there was no need to pray at school. Instead, he said, "we can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of all our children." This way, schools, football games, and courtrooms would become more comfortable places for everyone to be, without anyone feeling the need to believe in a particular god to belong.
Wow. It truly is amazing how much the Warren Court accomplished in a decade. Warren believes that although "most of these problems could have been solved through the political process rather than through the courts," the wheels of justice simply turned faster and with more strength when the court stepped in.
This doesn't mean that all Americans agreed with the rulings that were handed down. 40 years ago these topics were hotly debated and many opponents of the progressive decisions called for Warren's impeachment. They printed up "Impeach Earl Warren" bumper stickers, and produced "Warren Impeachment Kits" to spread anti-Warren publicity. Although some of the rulings are still debated today, the American public has since accepted many without question. My uncle says that, "all of these things that were startling or shocking have now woven themselves into the fabric of our lives." We now take for granted our "right to remain silent," our right for black classmates to go to school with white, our right to a school day without prayer, and our right to an equally-weighted vote no matter what district we live in. The legacy of Earl Warren's Supreme Court is as impressive as the glowing D.C. building that they worked in. His court helped shape our nation into the more egalitarian place that we know today.
Earl Warren: The Judge Who Changed America 1979 - Jack Harrison Pollack
Changing America and the Supreme Court 1974 - Barbara Habenstreit
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Links to Other Dispatches
Jennifer - Q: What's better than a high paying corporate job? A: Bringing hope to Americans in poverty
Neda - Teaching democracy through the barrel of a gun
Stephanie - Working for peace is a fulltime job
Stephen - It's not a race. It's your life!
Rebecca - America's royal family