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Lessons learned from Brown v. Board

Published on -5/22/2014, 1:36 PM

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Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, it's chilling to recognize the parallels between the backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court then and retribution now against our Kansas Supreme Court for its public school financing decisions.

The courts voted in these cases to protect the constitutional rights of the less powerful and to expand rights to public education. Sadly, however, critics of Brown honed a political line of attack against the judiciary that still thrives in Topeka six decades later.

When the U.S. Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional in Brown, it set off a withering reaction. There were impeachment threats, attacks on the court's legitimacy, strategies for defiance including "massive resistance," proposals to weaken the court's powers and efforts to abolish justices' life tenure.

More recently, our Kansas Supreme Court has sought to ensure all Kansas schoolchildren have equitable access to a world-class public education. Its March Gannon v. State of Kansas decision faulted legislators for cutting payments to poorer school districts in the wake of the recession. These cuts violated the state Constitution and crippled the court's own school-funding mandates. It was the court's second such ruling since 2005.

When legislators resist fairness mandates, underprivileged Kansas children are harmed. In the years preceding Brown, a different generation of underprivileged children suffered harm based on the color of their skin. The courts have acted to correct these historic injustices. Yet now as then, legislators are responding to court rulings with alarming political attacks, signaling to the public the judiciary's work should not be respected.

Last month, Gov. Sam Brownback -- who has shown himself to be too quick to cut school funding -- signed one of these attacks on the court into law. It punishes our Supreme Court for upholding the Kansas Constitution: In exchange for increased funding of state courts, it begins dismantling a decades-old practice of maintaining a single budget for the courts, which previously allowed the Supreme Court to shift funds among court districts when needed.

Other attacks on our Kansas courts have ranged from the seemingly mechanical to the brazenly political, all of them seeking to erode the authority of the third branch of government and tear away at the separation of powers.

When the Legislature took a chainsaw last year to the non-politicized selection of Kansas Court of Appeals judges, it tried the same with the state Supreme Court. It didn't succeed this time. Brownback has voiced support for a change, despite the fact 61 percent of Kansas voters said in a poll they oppose rewriting our Constitution to change the way Supreme Court justices are selected.

Other attacks have included bills to set timelines for judges to give their decisions; to lower the mandated retirement age for judges; to strip the state Supreme Court of its review of criminal cases; and to allow for judges to be subject to recall elections.

The legal struggle about school funding is not finished yet. If the court again orders Brownback and the Legislature to follow our Constitution and invest in schools, further retaliation is likely.

Sixty years ago, Brown's harshest critics vowed to punish an unpopular decision by assaulting judges and weakening courts. Today, the Kansas birthplace of Brown has seen a protracted legal battle over providing all schoolchildren the best education possible. It also has seen dismaying political attacks on the courts that stood up for the state Constitution and our children.

While the lessons of Brown are many, one of its most lasting lessons is the enduring need for citizens to stand up tall for the courts that protect our rights.

Ryan Wright is executive director of Kansans for Fair Courts.

ryan@kansasvaluesinstitute.org

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