Through the wind and the rain and on the wrong bus I battled my way to the Ebsworth Memorial Lecture in the Great Hall of Middle Temple. How long is it since I slipped along the cobbled pathway that is Middle Temple Lane? How long since I actually went into the splendour of the Great Hall? It is where I ate my dinners, where I was called to the Bar, and where I have perhaps twice had lunch since then.
The speaker was a judge from the American Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer, talking about Judicial Independence. In fact his lecture was more about the Rule of Law. Even if you don’t agree with a particular part of it, he talked of the words that describe a society governed by the rule of law – humane, decent, civilised, and what the alternative is – random, incoherent, effectively chaos. He did talk about the impossibility of reconciling an elected judiciary with the notion of judicial independence. He talked about the major decisions which are taken by the Supreme Court, which are often quite technical, not to say apparently boring, but which can affect people’s daily lives and which are routinely ignored by the press, but the moment the word abortion, for example, is mentioned, the Supreme Court is all over the news. He touched on the case of Bush v Gore, which decided the result of the 2000 presidential election, by majority of 5-4. He mourned the cuts in public funding of schools which mean that Civics lessons, learning about government and the Consitution, are removed from the Curriculum so that people aren’t being taught what law is.
But what most interested me in what he said was when he talked about the 1958 Supreme Court case of Cooper v Aaron. The issue was the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although it had been decreed by the school district that the school would be desegregated, when the black children turned up to attend school in 1957, they were turned away. The Supreme Court found that the problem lay with the view of the State government which opposed desegregation. The decision of the Supreme Court was unusually unanimous and signed by all 9 members of the Court and was to the effect that states were bound by the Court’s decisions and had to enforce them even if the states disagreed with them. And Justice Breyer touched on the human and public side of that debate, involving two young women at the time, one black, one white, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, and how the 4 September 1957 became a day that neither of them would ever forget. He mentioned a book that has been written about their stories. Here is the trailer.