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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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Similarly, in school districting cases, I only found two decisions in which a Democratic appointee invoked King. One was a lament that the Court of Appeals was making it hard to implement a plan to desegregate the Little Rock School District. In the other, the judge pointedly used every Republican's favorite King quote to uphold a Massachusetts school district's plan to prevent white flight: "In order to teach that the 'content of [one's] character' does not depend on color, a child must interact with children of other races, an interaction that necessarily challenges nascent stereotypes."[5]

Where It Gets Just Plain Weird

Dr. King was a preacher, right? So who better to invoke when a Republican wants to chip away at the separation of church and state?  After Republican appointee W. Eugene Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (for whom I clerked) affirmed a district court opinion that found a Mississippi school prayer law unconstitutional, and when rehearing en banc was denied, the previously mentioned Judge Edith Jones ran to Dr. King in her loud dissenting opinion.

Decisions fostering rigidly secular public education strip school officials of moral tools that lie at the heart of the educational process. As the Rev. Martin Luther King explained:

"The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but with no morals."

We must remember that intelligence is not enough.  Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education. (Ingebretsen v. Jackson Public School Dist., 1996)

The logic here is somewhat amusing, if lamentably common among members of the religious right. In order to teach character, schools need to teach morality, and where does morality come from? Religion! Therefore, you have to have religion in schools.  

Shortly thereafter Judge Jones wrote, "Paraphrasing George Orwell, we have sunk to the point at which it becomes one's duty to restate the obvious." Well, to state what should have been obvious: Dr. King  never mentioned religion in the paper she quoted, an op-ed King wrote as an undergraduate in his college newspaper. (Though the op-ed did say this: "If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists….")

What did King  actually think about school prayer? When asked about a Supreme Court decision striking down a school prayer law, Dr. King said, "I endorse it. I think it was correct.… In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right."

It looks like Republican judges and their clerks haven't done their homework, because they turn to King again and again in order to promote religion in schools and the public sphere. Want to allow a Bible Club or clergy as counselors in public school? Want to protect churches from having to disclose who is making donations? Just namedrop Martin Luther King.[6]

Democratic Surprises

I figured that on matters of religion, Democratic appointees would get Dr. King right, and they did: keeping religion out of public schools and making Islam more available in prisons.[7]  But I was surprised to see precious few references to him in police misconduct cases.[8] In one case, they spoke satisfyingly broadly:

The facts of this case give us cause to pause and ponder the slow systematic erosion of Fourth Amendment protections for a certain demographic. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are reminded that "we are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of others. Thus, in the case, we must ensure that the Fourth Amendment rights of all individuals are protected. ( U.S. v. Nathaniel Black, 2013)

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