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Nov 23 2011

Anniversary of Key Civil Rights Decision Serves as Reminder of Importance of Legal System

Yes, yesterday was the 48th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. There were various blog posts, FB status updates and other commemorations of the historic event. But very little was written about the 40th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision that changed this country forever. On November 22, 1971, the Supreme Court issued Reed vs. Reed which struck down an Idaho law that gave preference to males when deciding who should be the administrator of an estate. The facts of the case are simple but almost hard to believe in today’s world: Ms. Reed’s son died and she wanted to be the administrator of his estate and handle any legal issues (including lawsuits) that arose out of his death. At the same time, her husband (from whom she was separated but not yet divorced) also filed to be the administrator. Idaho law stated that “males must be preferred to females” when selecting administrators, guardians, etc. so the court awarded it to Mr. Reed. Well, Sally Reed went to the ACLU and they filed suit. One of the lawyers handling the case was Ruth Bader Ginsburg who now sits on the court.

The all-male Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law as unconstitutional. As the decision states, the court found that to give ” a mandatory preference to members of either sex over members of the other . . .is . . . forbidden by the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Reed cleared the way for numerous decisions that followed during the Women’s Lib Era, ending all male juries and all male public schools, for example.

The decision has relevance today for many reasons. (1)I am sure young women today would find it hard to believe that just 40 years ago-during most of their parents’ lifetimes- women could be excluded from legal positions just because of their gender. That a woman could be brought into court and tried “before a jury of her peers” who just happened to be all men: as was the judge, the clerk, the court stenographer, the district attorney, etc. (2) It also serves to encourage those that are presently discriminated against due to sexual orientation that hopefully 40 years form now that disparate treatment will seem archaic and hard to believe. (3) It shines a light on the way the Supreme Court has traditionally viewed the 14th Amendment as applying Equal Protection not to just freed slaves (as it was originally intended) but to all citizens of the United States. Are you aware dear readers, that Justice Antonin Scalia of the current US Supreme Court has openly and repeatedly declared that he does not believe that the Equal Protection clause prohibits gender discrimination. He believes it should only be applied as the framers of the amendment intended it to be applied, that is to freed slaves. (4) But most importantly, it shows the value of the First Amendment’s prohibition against laws that limit “petitioning the government for redress of grievances.” Without the ability to attack State laws as Federally unconstitutional, this country would appear radically different today. You could have states (like Idaho and Utah perhaps, along with others) with no female attorneys, no women judges, and all male specialty public schools. So while lawyers get denigrated and abused on a regular basis (sometimes by me as well) let’s recall that when an individual has been wronged by the State, it is access to the Federal court system that provides the only method of resolving those grievances.

In other words, this Thanksgiving, lets give thanks for the court’s decision in Reed, for the Bill of Rights, and for the Founding Fathers extraordinary foresight in creating a Federal judicial system for redress of grievances against State action which remains one of the best and most important parts of this country’s formation.

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