Justice and the Supreme Court

“The Supreme Court is emblazoned with the words, ‘Equal Justice to all Under Law,’ but you can search the ghetto and never find these words. To the poor, the law means surveillance, at best. Trouble at worst. And, too often, justice is meted out to the creditor, the landlord, the administrative agencies, the vendors, the finance companies, while the poor man cannot find a single friend in court.”
Sargent Shriver | Cleveland, OH | May 12, 1967

Our Quote of the Week is a sobering reminder that law and justice do not always go hand in hand — and that even the highest court in the land tends to favor the powerful when it ought to be protecting the vulnerable.

Since we just marked Independence Day in the US, we are reflecting on the principles on which the nation was founded: freedom, justice, democracy. To help us with our reflections, we have drawn on Sargent Shriver’s words from his 1967 Speech at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Medicine. Although focused on the specific subject of Neighboorhood Health Centers, the speech makes a powerful statement about the importance of the War on Poverty as a whole, and it also gives insight into what made Sargent Shriver distinct as a political leader. Take, for example, Shriver’s opening statement:

“I think my experience with the War on Poverty has been one of the most gratifying of my life. As doctors, you all know that satisfaction of making a creative diagnosis of unfamiliar symptoms--devising a completely new treatment--and effecting a cure. We have not yet cured poverty in this country, I am sorry to say. But we have identified the syndrome of poverty---we have developed that work-- and we know that time and money-- that joint therapy of nature and man-- will ultimately end poverty in America. Four or five years ago-- no one could have stood before you and made that confident prognosis. The disease of poverty had not yet been isolated. It masqueraded under many different names. Its symptoms were misunderstood and unrecognized. No one would have been able to specify a treatment even if the disease had been diagnosed.”

Shriver’s metaphor of poverty as a disease that has not yet been cured shows his creativity not only as a thinker or as a speaker, but also as a problem solver. Still, he shows us that he is not oversimplifying or underestimating the task of “curing” poverty:

“What is poverty?” asks Shriver.

“We used to think it was just being without money. And so we had various charities -- that provided clothing for unfortunate children -- odd jobs for the unemployed man -- and a Christmas turkey to maintain the pauper’s faith in the goodness of the rich. Today, we know that poverty is far more complex than the mere absence of money. And is far more widespread than we once believed.”

Shriver goes on to describe the importance of every War on Poverty program, one by one: Head Start, Job Corps, Community Action, Foster Grandparents, Neighborhood Health Centers. And in the context of Legal Services, Shriver raises the issue of justice, highlighting that even the US Supreme Court fails to live up to its motto, “Equal justice under the law.”

Like Sargent Shriver in his time, today many of us lament the fact that the most powerful court in our land favors the more powerful — the creditor, the landlord, the administrative agencies, the vendors, the finance companies, and indeed, even the president, over the people, and particularly the most vulnerable people. Since its founding in 1776, the United States has aspired to create a free, just, democratic nation. To continue to aspire to this vision of our nation, we must uphold the principles and support the leaders that will make progress possible, so that one day, we can feel confident that the words emblazoned on the Supreme Court truly reflect the institution on which they appear.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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