Archive for Monday, May 17, 2004

Justice’s commitment sealed Brown’s fate

May 17, 2004

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— It's hard to fathom now, but the Supreme Court's landmark decision banning segregation in public schools almost went the other way. Death, delay and old-fashioned political arm-twisting turned the tide.

The case known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, really was a collection of court fights led by NAACP lawyers in several states. When the issue reached the high court in 1952, only four of the nine justices wanted to scrap segregation altogether.

Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson was not among them.

"Congress has not declared there should be no segregation," Vinson, a Kentuckian, wrote in an internal note released years later.

Some justices were ambivalent about overturning a previous high court ruling allowing segregation and preferred to let states handle the matter for themselves. Others worried that Southern states might simply ignore a ruling banning segregation.

Divided over such an important question, the court took the highly unusual step of postponing its ruling for a full year. The court ordered a new round of arguments in the case, which were set for December 1953.

In September of that year, Vinson died of a heart attack at age 63. President Eisenhower named California Gov. Earl Warren to replace Vinson.

A shrewd politician and segregation opponent, Warren almost immediately set about cajoling and prodding his colleagues to vote with him to desegregate schools.

After the December oral arguments, Warren assigned himself to write the court's ruling.

Supreme Court justices often say they try hard to produce unanimous opinions, because the court's voice is stronger if it is united. But on highly charged cases it is almost impossible to get a 9-0 vote.

No one expected a unanimous ruling in Brown, but Warren was insistent. He compromised, rewrote, compromised and wrote again. He even made bedside visits to hospitalized Justice Robert Jackson.

On May 17, 1954, the court released its ruling. By modern standards it is startlingly short, just a few pages, and devoid of analysis.

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," Warren wrote for the court.

The court's opinion was unanimous.

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