Friends or Foes?
n Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, the current voting-rights dispute under consideration by the Supreme Court, the NAACP and other dedicated parties have weighed in on the argument by filing briefs containing information related to the case. The name for such briefs, with which NAACP lawyers are extremely familiar, is amicus curiae, a Latin term meaning “friend of the court.”
It’s a curious phrase in any context, and especially when we consider our long, complex and often frustrating relationship with the American legal system. Our interaction with the judicial branch has often been combative, and the outcomes have frequently
made it difficult to determine whether the courts — and the Supreme Court in particular — are friends or foes.
In Dred Scott v. Sandford, for example, the Court deter- mined in 1857 that Black people weren’t people in the eyes of the law, no more human than a donkey or a chair. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, whose statue is displayed on the grounds of the Maryland State House, memorably affirmed that Black people were “altogether unfit to associate with the White race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”
In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that state laws enforcing segregation were consistent with the U.S. Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Billings
Brown declared that the fault lay not with the law but with Black Americans’ self- esteem. In the opinion of the Court, Blacks labored under “the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferi- ority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.“ In other words, second- class citizenship was all in our heads.
It requires little imagination to identify a line extending directly from Taney’s ruling to Brown’s psychobabble to Justice Antonin Scalia’s preposterous observation that arguments in favor of extending voting-rights protection stem from expectations of “racial entitlement.”
If not for the dogged determination of the NAACP and its fearless legal team (including Thurgood Marshall, James M. Nabrit Jr., Robert Carter, Constance Baker Motley and many other brilliant advocates), Plessy might not have been overturned in 1954. That victory, Brown v. Board of Education, introduced the tantalizing possibility that the Supreme Court could be relied upon as an intelligent and trustworthy arbiter of the nation’s laws. In recent years, however, the increasingly conservative tenor of the Court has once again raised questions about its integrity and judgment. As the 21st century proceeds through its second decade, it remains uncertain whether defenders of fair- ness and equality can regard the nation’s highest court as a friend of justice or an enemy of progress. However, the fact of the Court’s unpredictability is no reason to ever doubt the righteousness of our cause. Roy Wilkins, a longtime leader of the NAACP, perhaps said it best: “The talk of winning our share is not the easy one of disengagement and flight, but the hard one of work, of short as well as long jumps, of disappointments, and of sweet success.”
Editor in Chief
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