Water Man Spouts

Friday, April 27, 2007

And Justice for All

"Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion." – Thomas Jefferson

Some of the conflicts between the Congress and the Bush administration will end up in the federal courts by mid-summer 2007. As this happens, issues regarding injunctions and contempt will likely be of interest to those who want to see the administration held responsible for its criminal behavior. I thought it would be interesting to look back 30 years, to a US Supreme Court decision which found that "no man can be judge in his own case, however exalted his station …. But respect for judicial process is a small price to pay for the civilizing hand of law, which alone can give abiding meaning to constitutional freedom."

That case was Walker v. City of Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307 (1967). It involves Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1963 protests in Birmingham. The story of Rev. King’s historic struggles in Birmingham can be found in books by and about him, as well as those covering the Civil Rights movement. Though some of Martin’s most important victories came from his experiences in Birmingham, he actually lost his appeal to the US Supreme Court for violating a state court injunction. It’s an important chapter in our nation’s history, and the case is worthy of our attention.

Many of the most Supreme Court decisions become the subject of great books. Some, such as the Steele Seizure case, become the text books for law students (The Anatomy of a Constitutional Law Case; Westin; Macmillon; 1958). Others, such as the Court’s "right to counsel" decision, are of greater interest to the general public (Gideon’s Trumpet; Anthoney Lewis; Random House; 1964). In the case of Walker v. City of Birmingham, some graduate students at the Department of Public Law and Government at Columbia University would use it for the basis of a course and a wonderful book (The Trial Of Martin Luther King; Westin and Mahoney; Apollo/ Cromwell; 1974).

When we think of King’s work in Civil Rights, we usually begin with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956. It came two years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). One of the interesting parts of the Civil Rights struggle in Alabama involves the use, starting in 1956, of the use of injunctions. John Patterson, the state attorney general, got a state court to issue an injunction that barred the NAACP from operating in Alabama from 6-1-1956 until eventually losing in federal court in 1965.

Let’s look briefly at Westin and Mahoney’s descriptions of injunctions and contempt:

"An injunction is a court order that directs individuals named in it to do (or refrain from doing) the acts specifically described in the order. A party against whom an injunction is issued cannot violate any of its terms, or he will be subject to punishment for contempt of court." (page 29)

"Contempt of court comes in two different varieties in American law – civil and criminal. Criminal contempt arises from acts ‘done in disrespect to the court,’ obstructing the administration of justice or bringing the court into disrepute; it is generally punishable by fine and imprisonment. In civil contempt, the party fails to do something that he is ordered to do by the court, and the individual can be jailed until he performs the required action and ‘purges himself’ of the contempt. Both types of contempt could be charged in a protest situation. …. Moreover, under the law of most states, Alabama among them, a person who violated an injunction could be held in contempt even if the injunction itself was invalid." (page 55)

The most important US Supreme Court cases involving protests and injunctions were from the labor movement. The most significant involved the 1894 American Railway Union, called by Eugene Debs, at a time when farmer and labor unrest was shaking the nation (In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, 1895). The other two involved miners: {1} Howat v. Kansas, 258 U.S. 181 (1922); and {2} United States v. United Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258 (1946). In each case, the Court ruled that injunctions. In the 1946 case, for example, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, "There can be no free society without law administered through an independent judiciary. If one man can be allowed to determine for himself what is law, every man can. That means first chaos, then tyranny."

In the early 1960s, it seemed that the federal courts were providing support to the Civil Rights movement. More, in the Kennedy administration, the Department of Justice began to provide needed support by taking actions to uphold court decisions. In a June 6, 1961 speech at the University of Georgia, Attorney General Robert Kennedy noted, "The decisions of the courts, however much we may disagree with them, in the final analysis must be followed and respected. If we disagree with a court decision and thereafter irresponsibly assail the court and defy its rulings, we challenge the foundations of our society …"

In May of 1961, RFK had John Doar, the chief assistant in the DoJ’s Civil Rights Department, have a federal judge sign an ex parte injunction to restrain the KKK, National States Rights Party, and the Birmingham and Montgomery police departments from interfering with interstate travel involving the Freedom Rides.

In 1962, city officials in Albany, Georgia were able to frustrate King and the SCLC’s attempts to desegregate public facilities by the use of a federal court injunction. King’s attorneys advised him that while the injunction was likely invalid, he should not risk damaging his relationship with the DoJ and the federal courts. By the time they had appealed and had the injunction vacated, the Albany movement had largely failed. Many of the community activists felt King had failed them.

That brings us to Birmingham in 1963. King and the SCLC had been planning demonstrations and a boycott to protest segregation, for six months. The plan was to begin them a couple of weeks before the Easter holiday, but due to the opportunity to remove Eugene "Bull" Connor from office, they had agreed to wait until after elections. Connor, the poster boy for racist ignorance and violence, was the cities’ Public Works Commissioner. He had denied the SCLC attempts to get permits for public demonstrations. When he made it clear that he was not going to honor the results of his election defeat, and would cling to power, the demonstrations began.

On April 10, the city attorneys had a state court issue an ex parte injunction forbidding King and the others from leading the demonstrations. It was a tough time for Martin: his attorneys recommended fighting the injunction, but it would have involved losing the option for the symbolic Good Friday and Easter demonstrations. Martin decided to march.

On April 12, King was arrested and put in jail. During his 8 days of incarceration, he composed one of the most amazing essays in American history, his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail. After he was released, the contempt case would be heard in state court. Civil Rights movement attorneys differed on the possible approach to the case, and after the convictions, on the early appeals. William Kunstler advocated theater; others preferred a more conservative approach, based on more limited Constitutional issues.

The case would be put on the back-burner in ’65 - ’66. It’s important to remember that the face of the Civil Rights movement changed significantly in the years after Birmingham. For example, on August 11, 1965, less than a week after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law, five days of rioting began in Watts. It resulted in 34 deaths; 800+ injuries; over 3000 arrests; and millions of dollars of property damage.

As "We Shall Overcome" was replaced with "Black Power," many white liberals pulled back from their support for public demonstrations for Civil Rights. They advocated using the vote to gain political and social power. At the same time, progressive whites and blacks began to connect Civil Rights at home with the war in Vietnam. By April of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., had become the most recognized Civil Rights -- anti-war spokesperson in the country. This had created significant friction between King and LBJ, as well as the Congress.

Oral arguments on Walker v. City of Birmingham were heard in March, 1967. On June 12, the last day of their ‘66-’67 term, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 against King and his codefendants. Those dissenting included Chief Justice Earl Warren, William O. Douglas, William Brennan, Jr., and Abe Fortas. Warren condemned the Court for giving its "seal of approval" to "a gross misuse of the judicial process" (Westin & Mahoney; pages 4-5).

For Civil Rights leaders in general, it marked the end of an era in which they felt the federal courts would support their efforts to gain Constitutional rights for minorities. For King and three others, it meant a 5-day jail sentence. For Martin, it marked his 19th incarceration.
In November of 1968, the Supreme Court would rule 9-0 against allowing ex parte injunctions to restrain Amendment 1 protests when the other party was available to contest the order in court (Carroll v. President and Commissioners of Princess Anne, 393 U.S. 175; 1968)

It is worth noting that the US Supreme Court had previously found that different rules applied to "free speech" and the right to assemble to protest in public. In their first major ruling on street demonstrations (Cox v. Louisians, 385 U.S. 863, 1966), Justice Goldberg wrote, "The rights of free speech and assembly, while fundamental in our democratic society, still do not mean that everyone with opinions or beliefs to express may address a group at any public place and at any time." After the defeat in the Supreme Court, however, Martin began to re-evaluate his position on obeying court injunctions that would limit Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations. In early 1968, he began to put together plans for a Poor Peoples’ Campaign to be held in Washington, DC. Elected officials in Washington began to debate how to prevent King from taking this bold step. Then King went to Memphis.

An interesting result of the Walker v City of Birmingham decision came in October 1973. President Richard Nixon said he would not comply with Judge John Sirica’s order to produce 9 tapes sought by Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. The order had been confirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals. But Nixon decided he was in a position of power, which allowed him to judge his own case. The outrage was immediate. People quoted from the Walker case: "(N)o man can be judge in his own case, however exalted his station, however righteous his motives, and irrespective of his race, color, politics, or religion." Nixon backed down.


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