Sixty years after Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, 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 state Supreme Court has sought to ensure that all Kansas schoolchildren have equitable access to a suitable public education. Its Gannon v. State of Kansas decision in March 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.
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 that the judiciary’s work should not be respected.
Last month Gov. Sam Brownback signed one of these attacks on the court into law. In exchange for increased funding of state courts, it begins dismantling a decades-old practice of maintaining a single budget for the courts.
Last year, the Legislature took a chain saw to the non-politicized selection of Kansas Court of Appeals judges. 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 current legal struggle about school funding is not over yet. If the court again orders Brownback and the Legislature to follow our constitution and invest in schools, further retaliation is likely.
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.