Judicial Equality Essay, Research Paper
The American judicial system is one of the most sophisticated and complex systems in the world today. It was designed to be accessible to anyone regardless of age, race, gender or religious belief.”The American legal system, which provides a peaceful alternative to violence in the pursuit of a more equal and just community, has been a substantial factor in maintaining the stability of American society.” (1) History has provided examples of judicial discrimination based on the accused’s racial heritage or gender. Although improvements have occurred within the legal system in regards to fairness and gender and racial heritage of the accused, they must continue to examine their practices. It is only through constant evaluation of the legal system that fairness can be achieved and maintained.
In November 1881, Tony Pace, a black man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, had been convicted in Alabama of the crime of living together in a state of adultery or fornication. The judge had been lenient and sentenced them to the minimum of two years in prison; he could have sentenced them to seven years. The law did not distinguish between mixed couples who were married and those who were not, because such unions were illegal in the state. Mr. Pace appealed the sentence on the ground that the law violated his Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The Alabama penalty for adultery between members of the same race was only six months. Justice Stephen Field delivered the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court. The six months section of the Alabama law stated punishment for persons of different sexes, while the two to seven years section established a penalty for persons of different races. He stated that whatever discrimination was present, was aimed at the punishment in review and not against a person of any particular color or race.(2)
In 1959, a white jurist stated the following about legal marriage: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.” (3) This example of racism is reflective of the judicial tone during that time period. Racial barriers had increased the separation of the races. Although many blacks achieved status in science, the professions and even business, the emphasis was always on the “separate” but equal.
In Florida, 1887, a law was adopted requiring railroads to carry Negroes and whites in separate cars and compartments. Other states followed suit. In New Orleans, a group of Negro leaders organized a committee to fight the separate-but-equal law through the courts. The railroad officials were sympathetic and helpful, some because they did not like the law on moral grounds, others because the hoped to avoid the extra expense of providing extra cars to satisfy the law. A member of the committee got himself arrested for sitting in a white coach on a trip from New Orleans to Mobile. Before he could be tried, the state supreme court ruled that the law could not apply to interstate passengers, since that was an area reserved for Congress. The committee sought counsel, and in June, 1892, Homer Plessy sat down in a car reserved for whites on the East Louisiana Railroad for a ride strictly within the state. Since he was lighter in color than many of the other white passengers because of his racial mix. arrangements were made in advance to arrest him and charge him with violation of segregation laws. Albion Tourg’ee was hired to defend Plessy in the court presided by Judge John Ferguson. Tour’gee asked the court to rule the Louisiana statute as unconstitutional. When Ferguson refused and ruled against Plessy, the case went on to the state supreme court and became Plessy v. Ferguson. The supreme court stated: “that the statute is prompted by prejudice on the part of one race to be thrown in such contact with the other, one would suppose that to be a sufficient reason why the pride and self respect of the other race should equally prompt it to avoid such contact if it could be done without the sacrifice of equal accommodations.” (4) It was said that “Justice is pictured as blind, and her daughter, the law, ought to at least be color-blind.” (5)
People of color other than white have often been the recipients of unjust sentences and poor legal representation. Poor defendants, on the whole, receive much harsher sentences than defendants who are able to pay for private counsel and supporting services. There is some suggestion that nonwhites receive harsher sentences than whites. Certainly there can be little doubt that white-collar offenders, who are usually affluent, receive more lenient sentences than street offenders who are usually nonwhite and poor. One need only to compare the sentences imposed on the Watergate felons with those imposed on the street criminals who steal a few dollars. Poor defendants must rely on the information, often inaccurate and prejudicial, presented by court investigators and public defense resources. It must be remembered that in the United States poverty is not distributed equally among the population. There are race, gender and age biases. Unemployment among Black Americans is double the figure for whites. In some areas it is 40% for young black males. Women are also disproportionately poor. They earn, over a lifetime on the average, less than 50% of the income of men. The poor, female-headed family is no longer a phenomenon but a statistic. When poor people are denied equal access to justice in America there is inevitably discrimination against nonwhites, women, the elderly and children. “Poor people of all races and ages and sexes do have legal problems. Poor black youths are arrested for criminal offenses disproportionately to their numbers in the population. Almost half of the 400,000 prisoners in the United States are black.” (6) “If discrimination in the use of the legal system were overtly based on race, the courts would have little difficulty in finding these practices unconstitutional. If the discrimination were based on age or gender, there is a good probability that these practices might be declared unconstitutional. All persons accused of a crime are constitutionally entitled to an adequate legal defense and should have the right to choose their own counsel, but often for minorities and women of lesser economic standing, the choice is made for them. To force a defendant that is a minority or female to be represented by an attorney that he/she does not want and in whom they have little confidence, differentiates between the minority and non-minority and undermines the claim that the legal system provides equal justice to all.” (7)
A generation ago most big law firms were closed to women and racial and ethnic minorities. Many law firms were segregated by race, religion and gender. Many big corporate employers, banks and insurance companies also excluded women and ethnic minorities. Therefore, law school graduates who were not white males often found their jobs in government, legal aid and public defenders offices. Often these able graduates clerked for federal judges and Supreme Court justices. Many leading law firms less than 40 years old were founded by these brilliant lawyers who were excluded from the established firms. Although there were large differences in their income then, the ability and competence was within the top 10% of the bar association.
In the last few decades the membership of the bar has been undergoing a rapid change as more nonwhites, women and children of the poor are being admitted to law school under scholarships and being accepted into the Bar association. This broadened base of the legal system has helped stem the flow of legal racism.
Another facet of the legal system is the makeup and influence of the jury of our peers. One need not look very far in history to see how the seating of a jury can influence the outcome of a trial. The Rodney King case featured tow very distinct and different panel of jurists in each of it’s trials. The first trial was predominantly white with a unfavorable verdict for the black defendant. The second trial was racially mixed and had a favorable outcome for the defendant. How can a trial with the same accusations handed down in each case have such dramatically different outcomes? The only variables were the makeup of the jury and the location of the trial. In the OJ Simpson case again, a predominantly black jury returned a favorable verdict for a black defendant and yet in the recent civil trial, the predominantly white jury returned an unfavorable verdict for the defendant.
“The Rand Corporation undertook the major attempt to examine racial bias in the jury as part of its study of civil cases in Chicago. Its statistics show that over the 20 year period of the study (1959 to 1979), black plaintiffs consistently were less likely to win and black defendants more likely to lose than were white ones, the black plaintiff win ratio rising only when the defendant was also black. Even when they won, black plaintiffs suing black defendants got 40% less money than did white plaintiffs suing white plaintiffs for the same type of injury. In cases involving serious injuries, the black average award was $45,000 less than for whites.” (8)
Has the American judicial system solved its issues surrounding racial and gender bias? Many experts feel that we have turned the corner and are heading to a path of judicial equality for all. After all, it is a Constitutional Right to all citizens. Certainly the days of serving jail time for people of different ethnic backgrounds marrying are gone, as are the days of whites and blacks being segregated in train cars. The constant review of judicial practice is the only way that racial and gender bias can be overcome. Continued examination in the press and up to date teaching in law schools will improve the quality of the lawyers being admitted to the bar, thus improving judicial equality.