Brown v. Board of Education: Law clerk watched history being made
May 16, 2004
Charles Ares, 77
Ares, former UA law school dean, was just 26 and fresh out of UA law school in 1952 when he went to Washington to be a law clerk for Justice William O. Douglas, who frowned on clerks who took time to watch oral arguments. But when lawyers first made their case Dec. 9, 1952, Ares hid behind a pillar and watched history unfold.
I was convinced that the majority of the court was going to overturn Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896 ruling declaring segregated schools were constitutional if they were equal to other schools). We know now, from seeing the records and the papers of some of the deceased justices, that it was close at that point and probably only four were sure votes at that time to overrule Plessy.
It was pretty heady. The Supreme Court has a long tradition of absolute secrecy. ... You had to be very careful. And this case was so closely watched that there was an agreement that only law clerks whose justice was going to write something in the case would have access to the conference books.
I don't make the pure distinction between politics and law, especially the U.S. Supreme Court. Here sits a court handling and having to decide one of the great economic, political, social issues of our time, and you can't expect people who have to decide a case like that to be unaware of or uninfluenced by the political atmosphere.
I think the reason why it seemed so clear that they had to overrule Plessy was that it was just so egregiously wrong.
It was a big step to simply upset the social structure of the South by telling them they couldn't have separate schools anymore. While that seems decent to me, to those people who grew up that way, it's a big thing to ask them to do that.