Chief Justice Speech - May 17, 2004

MAY 17, 2004

Good afternoon. Thank you, Presiding Justice Cooper, for your introduction. I also want to thank you and all the members of your committee for working so hard to bring about today's events. I am very pleased to be here as part of this symposium on the impact of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

This morning's plenary sessions provided an historical perspective of this monumental decision, and touched on its legacy, as our state and nation continue to explore questions about how best to meet the needs of our multiracial society. California, as is often the case, provides an excellent setting for considering and addressing these issues. We have more than 200 racial and ethnic groups within our state. Every corner of the globe is represented in our vibrant and diverse society. In our courthouses alone, every year more than 100 languages are translated, literally from A to Z: Albanian to Zapotec. Already, far sooner than was predicted less than a decade ago, our state has become one in which there is no majority population group.

The Brown decision was an historic turning point for our nation, and one to which our state is connected in many ways. Unfortunately, California's history, like our nation's, is studded with instances of bias and prejudice - hopefully relegated to the past. But this history also includes ample evidence of decisions and actions that helped pave the way toward the Brown decision. The California of today, and the wonderful variety found among those who call themselves Californians, continues to challenge us to ensure that in every part of our state, equal opportunity is available to all.

Chief Justice Earl Warren, the author of the Brown opinion, was as you know a three-term governor of our state. He became Chief Justice of the federal high court in 1953 after the death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson. The court had previously heard argument in the case — several cases, in fact, joined together for purposes of argument — on December 11, 1952, but the justices had failed to reach a decision before the end of the term.

The court set the case for reargument in October 1953, and supplied the counsel with a list of questions to be addressed. Chief Justice Vinson's unexpected death in September delayed the proceedings once again, and in the interim Chief Justice Warren took Vinson's seat on the court.

Despite the suggestion of disagreement among the justices raised by the need for reargument, and despite the proliferation of amicus curiae briefs that streamed in reflecting many points of view, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in May 1954, some 50 years ago, that was unanimous. The court rejected the 65-year-old precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson, holding instead that separate could not be equal. In his opinion, Chief Justice Warren, stressing the critical role of education, concluded on behalf of the court that even if schools were separate but equal, the effect on Black students "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be ever undone."

It is particularly timely to remember those words today. And it also is useful to recall that they were penned by an individual who, only a decade or so before, as Attorney General of California, had helped bring about internment of thousands of individuals of Japanese descent, some of them American citizens. Chief Justice Warren's participation in these two vastly different events illustrates the rapid changes that have taken place in our society and at the same time serves to remind us of the continuing need to remain vigilant at all times and in all contexts to the need to protect our federal and state constitutional guarantees of equal rights and justice for all.

California figured prominently in the legal debates over segregation, long before the Brown decision. Alvarez v. Lemon Grove, a 1931 case, may well be the first instance in which a court ruled against segregation in education. The trial court in this case rejected the justifications put forth by a school district seeking to segregate Mexican-American students in a separate, poorly equipped facility. The case was never appealed, and thus never became a precedent with wider impact.

The trial court's decision in Mendez v. Westminster ((1946) 64 F.Supp. 544)) followed sixteen years later in 1946. United States District Court Judge Paul J. McCormick ordered Orange County to halt its practice of sending Mexican-American students to segregated schools, and its judgment was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. ((1947) 161 F.2d 774.) One of the attorneys for the Mexican-American plaintiffs was Thurgood Marshall, who is familiar to us all as counsel who appeared in the high court for the plaintiffs in the Brown case before becoming a justice of that court.

The Brown case itself was given further substance by decisions of California judges who applied its holding to the communities in which they served. In 1963, the California Supreme Court in Jackson v. Pasadena City School Dist. ((1963) 59 Cal.2d 876) held that the separation of children into different schools by race was a deprivation of equal opportunity and amounted to a denial of equal protection of the laws and due process of the law. The court ordered the state's school boards to undertake reasonable steps to mitigate racial segregation in the schools, regardless of its cause.

In 1976, our court revisited this holding in an action arising out of the Los Angeles schools, Crawford v. Board of Education of the City of Los Angeles. ((1976) 17 Cal.3d 280.) The trial court had ordered the school board to "prepare and implement a reasonably feasible plan for the desegregation of its schools." The school board contended that any segregation was "de facto" and not "de jure" and thus that it had no constitutional duty to alleviate that situation. The Supreme Court concluded not only that the segregation was "de jure" in nature, but also that its determination of 13 years before, that segregation must be eliminated regardless of cause, was still valid.

Actions in state and federal courts in cities and counties across our state, from Pasadena to Palo Alto, continued for many years. Court-ordered desegregation, and the enforcement of consent decrees, continued to invoke court supervision into the next century. It was clear that sustained court oversight played a crucial role in ensuring that the result in Brown was transformed into concrete practice and policy.

The quest for equality of course remains a continuing one. This afternoon, you will be hearing more about issues presently confronting society and the judicial branch - and how best we can continue to seek equal treatment and equal rights for all. During the past decade, our judicial branch has examined its own practices in order to search out and eradicate bias — and even the appearance of bias — in our courts.

Starting in the late 80's, advisory task forces and committees of the Judicial Council of California studied the impact of gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as sexual orientation and disability, on the functioning of the courts. These groups were transformed into a permanent committee on fairness and access in the courts. They have been a key player in our branch's efforts to eradicate bias, to ensure fairness, and to remove inappropriate impediments to access to the courts.

The measures taken have affected almost every part of the court system. Courts have improved signage; developed standards for — and certified — language interpreters; made court and case information more useful, user-friendly, and easily available; translated critical information and forms into Spanish and other commonly used languages; created an award-winning website to provide a wide array of information; provided more assistance for self-represented litigants; and created educational programs for judges and staff - to name only a few of those measures.

I consider these efforts close relatives of the decision in Brown. Courts can help advance equality not only in the decisions they reach, but also in the manner in which they conduct themselves. The goal of achieving equality should not be considered a concept confined to one or two discrete aspects of our lives - such as education or employment. Instead, it is a fundamental principle that must inform and permeate every part of society and of government.

I am proud to be a part of a court system that has taken so many steps to improve its ability to provide fair and accessible justice for all. The will and commitment — to do even more — is there. All that we require are the resources necessary to enable us to succeed.

Thank you once again for inviting me to be part of this important event. We all owe a great debt to those who are responsible for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education: the plaintiffs who were determined to provide a good education for their children and for those who would follow them; the lawyers who worked long and hard to develop the strategies to win the day; and the justices who joined together, without dissent, to declare that the law of the land could no longer tolerate education that — on the basis of race — separated our children: because separate education - inherently and inescapably - cannot be equal education.

I hope that you enjoy the remainder of the program. I know that the sessions this afternoon will continue to inform, encourage, and inspire you.

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