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December 14, 2007

The motto "Equal Justice Under Law" appears on the west facade of the Supreme Court building, not the White House. But presidents have played an important role in making good on that aspiration.

It was the court that ordered desegregation of public schools "with all deliberate speed," but it was President Eisenhower who federalized the National Guard in Arkansas when a buffoonish governor tried to use troops to defy the court's ruling; Eisenhower's reluctant assertion of federal power allowed black students to enroll in a public school in Little Rock. And although it was the court that upheld the 1964 Civil Rights Act against a constitutional challenge, it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who championed and signed that landmark legislation.

Thankfully, the next president won't have to order troops to enforce rulings against school segregation. Nevertheless, he or she can act to promote and preserve equal justice. The president chooses the attorney general, who is responsible for enforcing laws against discrimination in voting, housing and public accommodations, and for ensuring that prosecutions aren't perceived as being motivated by partisan politics, a responsibility bungled by former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.

The president also can champion expansions of civil rights laws, such as the bill recently passed by the Senate to expand the definition of hate crimes to include crimes motivated by the victim's sexual orientation. More broadly, a president can choose whether to make a priority of federal involvement in the investigation and prosecution of bias crimes and discrimination against minorities.

Last and perhaps most important, the president nominates federal judges, including justices of the Supreme Court. In a recent speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, Republican candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani offered 200 reasons why next year's election is important: "the 200 federal judges that the next president of the United States will likely appoint over four years in the White House."

In the same speech, Giuliani tantalized his audience on the issue of whether he would seek to appoint Supreme Court justices who might overrule Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion. He said he would appoint justices "like Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts." Yet only the first two justices he mentioned have made it clear that they would overturn Roe, and the other two emphasized their respect for precedent during their confirmation hearings.

Those who believe -- as we do -- that Roe vs. Wade is not only settled law but vital to the emancipation of women deserve more clarity from Giuliani and other Republicans about whether they would try to use their appointment power to topple that precedent. Democratic candidates have promised to appoint Supreme Court justices likely to uphold it.

Abortion aside, the fundamental question is whether discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin or sexual orientation is a sufficiently persistent problem to justify an activist role for the Department of Justice and for the federal courts. Despite notable progress toward one America since the 1950s and 1960s, we believe the answer is yes. So should the next president.


Next: "Pursuit of Happiness" explores economic policy, the tax code and Social Security, among other issues. The complete "American Values" series can be found at

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