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Civil and Voting Rights Focus of Law Day Celebration

The following is a guest post by Wendi A. Maloney, a writer-editor with the U.S. Copyright Office

Jeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center explored the influence of the courts and Congress on civil and voting rights in a May 1 lecture in the Mumford Room.

The Law Library hosted the lecture for Law Day, an annual celebration of how the rule of law contributes to the freedoms Americans share. The 2014 theme, “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters,” recognizes the impending 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Many Americans credit the courts, especially the Supreme Court, for making the promise of equal rights a reality, Rosen said. But he called that view a “heroic myth,” stating that Congress has more often led the way. Moreover, Rosen said, the courts have been most effective when they have followed a national consensus about equality.

Jeffrey Rosen reads the 14th Amendment from his pocket edition of the Constitution. Law Day 2014.  Photo by Amanda Reynolds

Jeffrey Rosen reads the 14th Amendment from his pocket edition of the Constitution. Law Day 2014. Photo by Amanda Reynolds

Rosen noted that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, originated in congressional efforts to extend equal civil rights to all Americans following the Civil War. But in 1873, he said, the Supreme Court substituted a “cramped vision” of the Fourteenth Amendment in the so-called Slaughterhouse cases, which Rosen called “wrongly decided” and contrary to common agreement. The result was that civil rights were not enforced in a meaningful way until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Even in Brown v. Board of Education, the case that struck down school segregation in 1954, the Court did not break new ground in the way many people assume; most Americans favored desegregation by that time, Rosen said.

Law Librarian of Congress David Mao introduced Rosen, who is president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center, professor of law at George Washington University, legal affairs editor of The New Republic, and an award-winning journalist and author.

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