THE TIME IS ALWAYS RIGHT
TO DO WHAT IS RIGHT.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Oberlin College 1964
This is one of many of my favorite quotes the Martin Luther Kings and I think a great summary of his legacy in the law. Although my blogs generally regard topics that we help clients with every day, I feel that at the time of the Holiday of his birth, it is important to take this week to remember his words that ring so real over fifty years later. Perhaps the most significant of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s influences on American history were his remarks on the connection of the law and social justice.
Laws Can be a Block to Racial Justice
A large part of the civil rights movement was a battle against laws as they existed at the time. There were racially discriminatory laws in place that allowed segregationists the grounds on which to attack civil rights activism. In fact, police in Southern states arrested civil rights protesters which included, on several occasions, Martin Luther King himself for violating criminal code provisions. These laws included trespassing, disturbing the peace, marching without a permit, violating picketing laws, engaging in criminal defamation and criminal conspiracy. In fact, the NAACP was actually prosecuted in for refusing to disclose its membership rolls as was required by state law at the time. Not only was the law drastically against the Civil Rights movement at the time, but multiple states in the south also brought actions against civil rights attorneys for legal ethics violations as retaliation and to instill fear in those attorneys willing to fight to change the law as it stood at that time. In addition to legal ethics complaints, the city of Montgomery, Alabama used minor traffic ordinance violations as a way to stop the carpools used during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. The state of Alabama went as far as to prosecute Marin Luther King on charges of tax evasion.
The Can Be Applied Unfairly
Although Martin Luther King, Jr. was an advocate of peace and justice, it was necessary break laws that were in place at the time to effectuate social justice. In fact, even some laws that, upon their wording said nothing about race, were clearly being used against the civil right protesters. State leaders were segregationists who defied the implantation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education and other federal civil rights requirements. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (found at the following link:
he confronted this question in 1963 , where he set apart just and unjust laws. “A just law,” he wrote, “is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Since segregation laws fall in the latter category, “I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”
The Supreme Court can be Political
Martin Luther King addressed the more difficult situation where a law that “is just on its face and unjust in its application.” It was this situation that resulted in his arrest and arrival at his Birmingham jail cell. He was arrested for “parading without a permit.” “Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade,” he explained, “but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.”
In this particular case, King was correct and supported in the court of public opinion and the constitution as we read it today, but he lost in the highest court of the nation. The Supreme Court of the United States heard the appeal of the conviction of civil rights protesters for violating a state court injunction ordering them to refrain from demonstrating, the Court ruled 5-4 against the civil rights protesters in Walker vs. City of Birmingham , 388 U.S. 307 (1967) https://www.oyez.org/cases/1966/249. Although he had multiple victories in the Supreme Court, but this case was one of a few of exceptions. Justice Stewart, writing for the Court, reprimanded the protesters in Walker v. Birmingham: and stated: “This Court cannot hold that the petitioners were constitutionally free to ignore all the procedures of the law and carry their battle to the streets. One may sympathize with the petitioners’ impatient commitment to their cause. But respect for judicial process is a small price to pay for the civilizing hand of law, which alone can give abiding meaning to constitutional freedom.”
The Continued Fight Against Unjust Enforcement of Laws
What strikes me in this is how the Supreme Court can sometimes ignore how the implementation of a law can violate the rights guaranteed by other laws. This is a practice that continues to plague our system of justice to this day. In fact, it is clear and apparent from the current Supreme Court and the recent very political appointments made to the Court. For King, enforcement of unjust laws and the courts that supported the practice were hurdles in the cause of racial justice. These enforcement of law in an unjust manner continues in our justice system over fifty years later. In some recent decisions, the court has made controversial rulings in some of the most politically and socially charged areas of the law. Here are a few examples:
City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Bond (Per Curiam Opinion on October 18, 2021)
In this case, the Court summarily (without argument) reversed the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court held that the conduct by the police officers did not violate any clearly established violation of statutory or constitutional rights, and thus, they are entitled to qualified immunity
United States v. Cooley, (9-0 Opinion by Justice Breyer on June 1, 2021. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion.)
In this case, the Court vacated and remanded the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Court ruled that a tribal police officer has authority to detain temporarily and to search a non-Indian traveling on a public right-of-way running through a reservation for potential violations of state or federal law.
Nasrallah v. Barr, (7-2 Opinion by Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan and Gorsuch on June 1, 2020. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, filed a dissenting opinion.)
In this case, The Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court held that courts can review an immigrant’s factual challenge to a denial of their application to stay conviction-based deportation under the Convention Against Torture.
For a full up to date list of recent decision by the Supreme Court Refer to the ABA website: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/criminal_justice/resources/case_updates/
WHY I AM GRATEFULL 2022: I am grateful for this hot and delicious latte from the fancy Keurig that my son talked me into buying on this quiet and peaceful Sunday morning as I write this blog and reflect on this amazing human being who changed our county so profoundly. Thank you, Dr. King, for your passion, your determination and your brilliance. It is important for all of us to be the change we want to see in the world by making gratitude a part of each day. If we all practice gratitude more regularly, the world will be a kinder place. Each of my blogs will contain something I am grateful for and reviewed in our year end blog. I hope that you will also have a lengthy list by the end of 2022. I hope that by reflecting on gratitude, we will find the positive of everyday, even the days that are stressful.
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