Editor’s Note: Todd A. Cox is policy director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. The views expressed here are solely the author’s.
The US Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a watershed moment in the fight for racial justice. The ruling not only banned segregation in our schools, but it also redefined equality in the eyes of the law, setting the stage for racial integration in all facets of American life. The ruling is not simply the court’s most vital civil rights decision; it is also the court’s most vital decision about the rule of law.
At her confirmation hearing Wednesday, Wendy Vitter, President Donald Trump’s judicial nominee to serve in the Eastern District of Louisiana, refused to say whether she agreed with the high court’s momentous ruling. When asked directly, Vitter said, “Respectfully, I would not comment on what could be my boss’ ruling, the Supreme Court.” She added, “I would be bound by it. And if I start commenting on, ‘I agree with this case, or don’t agree with this case,’ I think we get into a slippery slope.”
This would be unacceptable from any person pursuing a position in public life, but it is particularly inexcusable from a nominee to a lifetime seat on the federal bench. Vitter’s failure to endorse the court’s decision is not simply an affront to civil rights, but to the legacy of Brown and the rule of law. The landmark decision must remain a red line.
This is not a partisan issue. Even Justice Neil Gorsuch – a nominee that the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund opposed for his positions on many issues of racial justice – said during his confirmation hearing that he supported the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
Her response is also consistent with her omission of critical information from her initial responses to the questionnaire she submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, failing to disclose public appearances and speeches where she made other controversial comments. Failure to be candid before the body responsible for providing advice and consent on her nomination should itself be disqualifying for someone hoping to enjoy the privilege of a lifetime appointment to the federal judiciary.
However, such behavior is an all-too-familiar feature of this administration’s nominating strategy, which promotes the appointment to the executive and judicial branches of individuals who are not only hostile to civil and human rights but also disrespectful of well-established judicial norms and standards.
Ultimately, the Brown ruling compelled our country to confront the systemic injustice that sullied our past and pushed us to grasp the unrealized promise of equality at the heart of our nation’s founding. The court’s decision began the process of ending legalized apartheid in the United States by establishing that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.
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The ruling has quite literally touched the lives of every single American, providing the legal basis not just for the desegregation of our schools but all public life. If judicial nominees – or nominees for any other office for that matter – cannot affirm the veracity of the court’s decision, they cannot be trusted to uphold the responsibilities fairly of the position they seek.
The legal disputes Vitter would decide in US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana will be difficult. Voicing support for equality, desegregated schools and the rule of law should never be.