By Associate Prof. Justin Hansford
This Supreme Court nomination is one of the most important political moments in our lifetimes. On the eve of the 100th anniversary of his birth, it is fitting to reflect on former South African President Nelson Mandela’s famous comment that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
We know that mass incarceration, economic injustice, police violence, gender inequality and other key human and civil rights concerns do not turn on the actions of individual outliers or bad actors; instead, it is the institutions that uphold, allow and reinforce injustice on a grand scale that should keep us awake at night. The Supreme Court is one of the most powerful institutions in our country. The laws it has passed have made slavery legal and upheld Jim Crow segregation, and also the Court has heeded the call of our alum Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education to deny that separate could ever be equal. The court creates the structures that could either oppress us or liberate us on a nationwide scale.
This particular nomination has more importance because many of the most urgent issues affecting our human and civil rights have been decided by a single swing vote with 5-4 decisions. The next justice to be confirmed will deliver that swing vote. Affirmative action, women’s rights, voting rights, limits on the powers of police—all of these issues have been decided recently on a 5-4 vote, and all of them could shift for generations to come, according to the vote of this nominee.
Initial impressions of Judge Kavanaugh’s record indicate that there should be cause for concern. As an attorney, he partnered with anti-affirmative action advocates to oppose racial justice measures in Hawaii; as a judge, he has argued that international law and, by extension, human rights law, should not apply in the United states. His appointment has already been opposed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the NAACP, the Center for American Progress and other established civil rights organizations.
As future leaders of this country, the challenge for Howard University students is not to close their minds and huddle into a particular political position, but to open their minds and understand the legal, social and political context in which these consequential moments are unfolding. Our core values of excellence, leadership, truth and service should guide us.
If your understanding of the implications of this issue leads you to want to further promote social change, contacting your senators would be a good place to begin, especially if you are from a state with a senator who holds a key vote. Also, please do not hesitate to explore opportunities for involvement at our soon to be opened Thurgood Marshall Center at the law school. We must continue on the course to construct the people-centered society that will be a feature of our legacy for our children to enjoy. When engaging with the future of American law, at stake is not only the type of society that we will live in, but also the type of world we will leave behind for our children and grandchildren.
For more information on the Thurgood Marshall Center, contact us at ThurgoodMarshallCenter@law.howard.edu.