Thursday, May 17, 2012
Equal Protection And Dignity Under The Law
In a variety of SCOTUS cases, the concept of 'dignity' has been a key element:
- Trop v Dulles (1958): The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.
- McKaskle v Wiggins (1984): [T]he right to appear pro se exists to affirm the accused's individual dignity and autonomy.
- Planned Parenthood v Casey (1992): These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment...Part of the constitutional liberty to choose is the equal dignity to which each of us is entitled.
- Lawrence v Texas (2003): It suffices for us to acknowledge that adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons...The stigma this criminal statute imposes, moreover, is not trivial. The offense [is] a criminal offense with all that imports for the dignity of the persons charged.
That word is not used in Brown v Board, issued on this day in 1954, but dignity is still clearly at the heart of that landmark decision:
To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:
- "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."
- The words of the [14th] amendment...contain a necessary implication of...exemption from legal discriminations, implying inferiority in civil society...
So today when it comes to marriage equality, it's not just legal protections at stake, but a recognition that none of us are inferior to anybody else. I guess that's why Andrew Sullivan got choked up discussing the significance of Obama's words:
I never understood the power of a president's words until that day, really. I thought, all that matters is the states and the Congress and the Defense of Marriage Act and I had all this in my head and suddenly this man saying, 'I'm with you, I get it, you're like me, I'm like you, there is nothing between us, we are the same people and we are equal human beings and I want to treat you the way you treat me.' That -- that was overwhelming. That's all I can say. I was at a loss for words.
Dignity--whether it be regarding civil marriage or service to one's community--is fundamental to individual liberty and the rule of law. I would hope the people of VA and NC in particular reflect on that on this historic date.
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