The Court and Civil Liberties

Logo for the St. Louis Star-Times

One of my dad’s editorials.

Seldom has the United States Supreme Court been more emphatic in upholding civil liberties than it was in the opinion written by Justice Hugo L. Black reversing the conviction for murder of four Florida Negroes who had “confessed” under pressure of third degree methods which the court said were “calculated to break the strongest nerves and the stoutest resistance.”

The specific issue involved was whether the requirement of due process had been complied with. The court said it had not. But Black’s opinion went far beyond the narrow legal ruling… and it is because of that that the case is important. Black added a declaration which makes it clear that all those who come before the court on similarly “manufactured” evidence will be accorded jealous protection:

“Under our constitutional system, courts stand against any winds that blow as havens of refuge from those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered, or because they are non-conforming victims of prejudice and public excitement.”

Thus it is apparent that the court was thinking not only of this case, but of persecuted peoples of all races and persuasions. Such a vigorous assertion of American minority rights in these days of totalitarian practices, is something to warm the blood with new hope.

There were other factors that made this decision significant. Among them is the fact that Black wrote it. In 1937, Black was under fire because of his former membership in the Ku Klux Klan-which suggested he might have narrow, prejudiced conceptions inconsistent with the traditions of the court. Yet now he appears as the voice of the bench on civil liberties, backed by a unanimous court, giving him the authority to read the decision in full—a sharp departure from the customary procedure.

The court has given an admirable expression of its concern for justice and equality. As long as its holds such lofty ideals, there need be little fear that dictatorship will become the order of the day in America.

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