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How Federal Judges Use and Abuse the Words of Martin Luther King Jr. in Their Decisions

Republican-appointed judges attempt to lay claim to moral legitimacy by invoking MLK.

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Republicans, King, and Voting Rights

Let's start with the voting rights cases. In  Vera v. Richards (1994), a panel of three Republican judges considered a Texas redistricting law that created three minority-majority congressional districts. Judge Edith Jones, a Reagan appointee whom both presidents Bush considered elevating to the Supreme Court, opened the decision by stating that the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

"marked the full maturity in American political life of the Founders' idea that "all men are created equal" and the Rev. Martin Luther King's hope that his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin."

Ah, yes, the famous "content of their character" line. A little later in her introduction, she continues in the same vein:

Racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but it is also morally wrong, inconsistent with our founding tradition and Martin Luther King's vision. The color of a person's skin or his or her ethnic identity is the least meaningful way in which to understand that person.  

I can think of less meaningful ways to understand a person. (Do you like hot dogs?) You can guess which way they ruled.

In Houston v. Haley (1989), a case challenging a plan to introduce an at-large district for the governing board of Oxford, MS, Nixon-appointee Judge Thomas G. Gee wrote that:

Deliberately to define a political position by the irrelevant criterion of race, and with the avowed intent of producing an officeholder who is black, seems a most dubious undertaking. For one thing, it stands Dr. King's dream--given voice in his August 1963 speech at the Civil Rights March on Washington--on its head: "I have a dream that my . . . children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

There it is again.[2]

In Clark v. Marengo County, AL, Commission (1986), Nixon-appointee Judge William Brevard Hand laments that the Court of Appeals is forcing him to do adopt districts (advantage: minority) rather than an at-large approach for the county (advantage: whites). His reasoning as to why this is a travesty is that "it denies the dream Martin Luther King expressed when he opined that he longed for the day that you can look at the nation and not see black or white."[3]

Why do so many Republicans think Dr. King advocated colorblindness? Republicans "have created a mythical Martin Luther King Jr., constructed solely from one line in his "I Have a Dream' speech." Perhaps if King had only spoken words like "I'm black and I'm beautiful" or "the fierce urgency of now" or only voiced his support for affirmative action (all of which  he also did), Republicans would have had to find someone else to quote as part of their delusion that black equals black (and Democratic) but white equals a fair "mixing pot" for everyone.

Democrats, King and Voting Rights

So do Democratic appointees do any better? Oh, yeah.

In a 1992 case brought by California's congressional Democrats to challenge the state's redistricting plan, Judge Thomas Tang of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—a Carter appointee—wrote:

In 1957, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. awakened the conscience of this country to the heart-felt desire of African Americans and other minorities to participate in the American electoral process on an equal footing:

"The denial of this sacred right [to vote] is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions and it is democracy turned upside down. So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others."

 
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