This month marks the 45th anniversary of the late Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first African-American on the high court, Justice Marshall was a voice for the voiceless. Today, with an unpopular court that appears to fight for the rights of corporations rather than people, we miss him more than ever.
On June 13, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Marshall to fill the seat vacated by Associate Justice Tom Clark. Marshall, who at the time of the appointment was U.S. solicitor general, was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 69-11.
A former chief counsel of the NAACP who had successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, Marshall demonstrated his unwavering commitment to civil rights and civil liberties, free speech and women’s reproductive freedom. Further, he was staunchly opposed to the death penalty.
In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, which placed a moratorium on the death penalty until 1976, he wrote: “It is the poor and the members of minority groups who are least able to voice their complaints against capital punishment. Their impotence leaves them victims of a sanction that the wealthier, better-represented, just-as-guilty person can escape.”
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Marshall was also aware that innocent people are executed. “No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real,” he wrote. In his later years, as the Supreme Court became more conservative, he commented that “power, not reason, is the new currency of this court’s decision-making.”
Justice Clarence Thomas – the man who replaced Marshall on the court – embodies this. Thomas will never fill an inch of Marshall’s shoes.
Thomas voted with the majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which granted free speech rights to corporations and has allowed corporations to pour unlimited dollars into elections. The ruling paved the way for the super PACs, and has diluted the votes of ordinary citizens.
A civil rights foe, Thomas is against affirmative action, even though he benefited from it. In addition, he was the only justice to vote against a provision of the Voting Rights Act that protects black people from violence and intimidation in the voting booth.
And in an awful irony, he is a staunch pro-death penalty advocate, urging the upholding of capital punishment in case after dubious case.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has a paltry 44 percent approval rating, according to a recent poll. It is no wonder, given how far Thomas and the court’s majority have strayed from protecting the rights of the people.
Contact Love, executive director of Witness to Innocence, at firstname.lastname@example.org.