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Desegregation triumph dominates in high court’s year-end report

In honor of the judge from Little Rock, Arkansas, who upheld Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court will unveil a special exhibit in 2023.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Chief Justice John Roberts warned against defying the Supreme Court’s rulings on Saturday afternoon, capping off a turbulent year in which the conservative majority handed down multiple opinions at odds with public opinion across the country. 

Released hours before the new year, the year-end report reminisces about a much older decision: Brown v. Board of Education. While Brown is now lauded as a bright spot in the high court’s history, the 1954 ruling was ahead of its time and the justices needed help to enforce it. Brown formally marked the beginning of the end of segregation — overturning the separate-but-equal precedent that previously ruled the land — but the ruling created a standoff between Arkansas’ governor and the federal government over the attendance of nine Black children at Central High School in Little Rock. 

After a federal judge ordered the high school to allow Little Rock Nine to attend the school, a mob and the state’s National Guard blocked the students from entering. President Eisenhower ended the standoff at Little Rock, sending in the Army to force the state’s compliance with Brown

In his year-end report, Roberts used Brown to convey a plea to uphold the court’s rulings. 

“A judicial system cannot and should not live in fear,” Roberts wrote. “The events of Little Rock teach about the importance of rule by law instead of by mob.” 

The Supreme Court was cause for a different kind of national outrage this summer when it overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating federal protections for abortion. After a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Woman’s Health Organization opinion leaked, large-scale protests took place outside the court and across the country in opposition to the court’s ruling. The Supreme Court set up 8-foot fences surrounding the building for security. 

Dobbs and Brown share some similarities. They both juxtaposed current public opinion. Justice Samuel Alito even compared the two in his majority opinion in Dobbs, saying Roe was similar to Plessy v. Ferguson — the ruling Brown overturned. Those similarities end, however, with their effect on the rights of Americans. Brown gave rights to Americans while Dobbs took rights away. 

Roberts' recounting of Brown includes special attention to one judge who upheld the rule of law. U.S. District Judge Ronald Davies — who Eisenhower appointed — was only on the bench for two years before he was tapped to preside over the Eastern District of the U.S. Court of Arkansas. 

“Judge Davies had no idea what cases he would draw upon his arrival,” Roberts wrote. “But when it came time to rule in the school desegregation litigation, Davies did not flinch.” 

Roberts noted how Davis followed the high court’s precedent despite pressure from the state’s governor. 

“In deciding the case, Judge Davies said: ‘I have a constitutional duty and obligation from which I shall not shrink. In an organized society, there can be nothing but ultimate confusion and chaos if court decrees are flaunted,’” Robert wrote. 

The government is now in the process of restoring the Richard Sheppard Arnold U.S. Courthouse where Davis presided. While the renovation will include the original judge’s bench, the bench is coming to the Supreme Court before it goes on display in Arkansas. 

“The authentic bench will give visitors an opportunity to transport themselves in place and time to the events in Little Rock of 65 years ago,” Roberts wrote. “The exhibit will introduce visitors to how the system of federal courts works, to the history of racial segregation and desegregation in our country, and to Thurgood Marshall’s towering contributions as an advocate before he became a Justice.” 

Roberts said the new exhibit will open in the fall. 

Although the vast majority of the protests following Dobbs were peaceful, Roberts also noted the importance of judges’ safety. Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the subject of a recent threat when a California man attempted to break into his house. Roberts noted Congress’ recent efforts to provide increased judicial security and the work of Judge Esther Salas, who has become an advocate for the cause following the murder of her son, Daniel Anderl. 

“The law requires every judge to swear an oath to perform his or her work without fear or favor, but we must support judges by ensuring their safety,” Roberts wrote. 

Stats on the Supreme Court’s caseload round out the report. Filings at the court saw a decline, as did the number of cases heard by the court. The court heard 70 cases in the 2021 term compared with 72 in 2020. But the court also handed down slightly more opinions during the 2021 term as compared with 2020. 

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