In 1952 William Rehnquist, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote a memo he called “A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases”. At that time, Rehnquist was clerking on the Supreme Court for Justice Robert Jackson, and the memo was apparently addressed by Rehnquist to his then boss.
In his memo, Rehnquist mapped out his vision for how the Court should deal with a series of cases brought by the NAACP challenging the practice of racial segregation that were working their way through the lower courts and almost certainly bound for the Supreme Court.
Rehnquist, for the most part, urged restraint. Rehnquist thought that because public opinion had already spoken on the topic of racial segregation — largely receptive of the practice — it would be inappropriate for the Court to get involved simply because its members “dislike[d] segregation” or considered it “morally wrong”. Only in “extreme cases”, Rehnquist cautioned, would it be appropriate for the Court to step in to “thwart public opinion”. In Rehnquist’s mind racial segregation did not meet that test.
In concluding his memo, Rehnquist offered the following observation:
I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by “liberal” colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson [the case that established the principle of “separate but equal”] was right and should be re-affirmed. If the Fourteenth Amendment did not enact Spencer’s Social Statios [sic], it just as surely did not enact Myrddahl’s American Dilemna [sic].
Rehnquist’s view, we know now, did not prevail. The Court ultimately took the so-called “segregation cases” and voted unanimously to strike down as unconstitutional the practice of racial segregation in its landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education.
Chief Justice Robert’s recent dissent in the same-sex marriage case makes a lot of the same points Rehnquist made in this memo, which is not surprising. Like Rehnquist, Roberts is a conservative. And he had at one time clerked for Rehnquist. At one point in his dissent Roberts uses the same reference to Spencer’s Social Statics and the Fourteenth Amendment that Rehnquist used at the end of his memo, language which Roberts correctly attributes to Judge Friendly and Justice Holmes, but he almost certainly had Rehnquist and perhaps his 1952 memo in mind in writing that and the rest of his dissent.
The approach advocated by Rehnquist and Roberts — that is, let the legislators and voters decide — has some appeal. One might counter however that they only suggest this approach because they know it is one that is self-defeating; that there will always be a majority of lawmakers and their supporters somewhere who will refuse to recognize the fundamental right at issue.
Right approach or not, what matters ultimately are the facts on the ground. And that, to a large extent, is determined by the hearts and minds of everyday folks and how they wish to shape the society in which they live. Court rulings and statutes carry some influence in that respect. More so, however, is the unwritten code of life that governs how we treat one another — with dignity, respect and fairness. That it took years of hard-fought litigation and a sharply divided Supreme Court to confer on homosexuals the right to marry is proof that this code is sorely lacking in this country, or is simply not being observed to the extent that it should. Were the opposite true, the debate about gay marriage would have ended a long time ago and with the “self-evident” conclusion that “all men [and women] are created equal….”