Lori Falce: What can Brown v. Board of Education do for you?
It’s a question that has been asked of many judicial nominees in recent years.
“Is Brown v. the Board of Education settled law?”
More surprising than the question is the lack of answer. Lately, what has always been a softball is being bounced on the fingertips like a hot potato.
This is the 65th anniversary of “Brown,” one the great power lines of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the case where the justices set in stone what Thomas Jefferson had set in ink — that everyone is equal. It pulled the teeth from a previous ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, that gave permission to every Jim Crow double standard.
Brown said no. Brown said separate but equal will never work because it will never be equal. Brown shook its head and demanded that if white kids get to go to the big school with new textbooks and up-to-date facilities, the black kids are going to be sitting next to them.
But what does that matter now? Almost a lifetime later, what does that matter to me? To you? To our lives today?
It means everything.
The case was about a family that wanted to have their daughter go to a school near their home, despite the fact that she was black and the school was for whites. But the decision? That was for every American.
Equality isn’t something that is given on a case-by-case basis. We either have it or we don’t. Brown didn’t just say that black kids are equal to white kids. It said all kids are equal to each other. It said that women are equal to men, that Christians are equal to Jews, that gay is equal to straight, that disabled is equal to able.
If American law was the Bible, Brown would be the first chapter of the New Testament. It looked at what went before, drew a line and declared that going forward, things would be different.
And it was. Even if it isn’t cited as precedent in so much of what came after, it affected a shift. Like the presumption of innocence in criminal court, Brown spelled out a presumption of non-discrimination. We might still be looking for that perfect equity, but Brown gave us a treasure map promising that it is out there somewhere.
Civil Rights Act. Voting Rights Act. Individuals with Disabilities Act. Fair Housing Act. So many more. They start with the idea that America is a classroom with a desk for everyone.
So why the hedging when asked about it now?
Despite Chief Justice John Roberts, justices Sam Alito and Neil Gorsuch and others saying it was settled law until 2017, other nominees since are giving the same kind of non-answer answers that come for questions about abortion and capital punishment — topics that will almost certainly come up in cases and preserve the judge’s veil of impartiality.
But there should be nothing about recognizing the validity of Brown that threatens impartiality.
Just like there should be nothing about recognizing the Declaration of Independence.
Our nation was born with the announcement that all of us were created equal.
Lori Falce is a Tribune-Review community engagement editor. You can contact Lori at [email protected].