This month marks the 100th birthday of civil rights legend and revered federal judge Robert L. Carter. Best known as a principal architect of Brown v. Board of Education, Carter brilliantly wove together history, social science, constitutional jurisprudence, and our nation’s professed values to topple legal segregation.
But both before and after Brown, Carter pursued equal justice and freedom of expression, fearlessly confronting white supremacy in law and practice and upholding the right to protest our government.
Though Judge Carter left us in 2012, his legacy and example are alive and well. And, today, we need them more than ever. The challenges that Carter surmounted during his career are all too familiar in today’s political landscape.
One of Carter’s first experiences with the U.S. Supreme Court was as a law student, observing an oral argument by legal giant Charles Hamilton Houston, who was spearheading the NAACP’s efforts to overturn segregation laws.
Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds physically turned his back on Houston, a former Amherst College valedictorian and Dean of the Howard University School of Law, during his oral argument, believing that African-American lawyers were racially disqualified from addressing the High Court.
Almost 80 years later, Donald Trump brazenly declared that an American jurist, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, was not competent to hear a Trump University fraud case because of his Hispanic ancestry. Never having disavowed that position, Trump is now nominating candidates to fill over 100 federal court vacancies, including on the Supreme Court.
To protect the cherished right to vote, Robert Carter successfully argued Gomillion v. Lightfoot, which outlawed the gerrymandering of electoral districts to suppress African Americans’ voting power. As Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the Court in Gomillion, “acts generally lawful may become unlawful when done to accomplish an unlawful end.”
Today, lawmakers in states like Texas and North Carolina are again attempting to suppress voting by people of color through intentionally discriminatory gerrymandering, unlawful voting restrictions, and other schemes. And we have an Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who has used his power as a prosecutor in the past to intimidate people registering African Americans to vote.
Carter helped to establish other fundamental rights of free expression on which Americans of all political stripes now rely, and that are currently under attack. He argued and won NAACP v. Alabama, overturning southern states’ attempts to acquire NAACP membership lists so as to threaten and intimidate civil rights activists.
Today, conservative lawmakers in at least 18 states have introduced bills intended to deter and punish human rights protestors. And even before taking office, the Trump transition team sought the names of federal employees who attended United Nations climate change meetings, apparently in order to suppress dissenting views within the government.
After becoming a federal judge in 1972, Robert Carter continued to uphold equal justice under the law. Among many other decisions, he held that the New York City Police Department was discriminating against African-American and Latino job applicants, ushering in significant changes in police hiring practices. Reforms in police hiring, training, and accountability remain crucial today, as documented patterns of police bias and abuse continue to surface around the country.
As we confront a challenging new era, we’re fortunate to have Judge Carter’s shoulders on which to stand. His legacy of equal justice, voting rights, and free expression is crucial as we grapple with contemporary political leaders who hold those freedoms in contempt.
But as we acknowledge Judge Carter’s 100th birthday, we must also follow his example. We must channel his innovative thinking, painstaking research, and courageous advocacy to meet today’s unconstitutional actions. And we must remember that threats to our democracy, and the way we answer those threats, echo long into the future.