John F. Kerry photo

Remarks in Des Moines, Iowa

March 08, 2004

We are here tonight to honor our next generation of lawyers and to honor your state's most esteemed jurists, the Iowa Supreme Court. It is a Supreme Court whose history is worthy of celebration. In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a girl could not be denied access to her neighborhood school because of the color of her skin. The very next year, this Court ruled that women could not be denied the right to practice law in Iowa. And in 1873, Iowa's high court ruled that an African American woman who was a passenger on a steamboat had the very same rights as the white passengers traveling with her.

These decisions were decades ahead of where most of our nation stood when it came to recognizing the rights of all Americans. I hope all of you take great pride in this legacy.

Thirty years ago this fall, I enrolled at Boston College Law School at a time when the nation at large was catching up to some of those early Iowa decisions. I went to law school as part of a generation at the crossroads. Vietnam had tested our faith in institutions and transformed so many of us into activists knocking on doors and raising our voices to hold the system accountable from the outside. We'd seen that the law could be an engine for progress, that barriers could be broken when idealistic citizens gave voice to our fundamental values inside a courtroom. We'd seen Attorney General Bobby Kennedy send the National Guard into hostile territory to face down Bull Connor and his snarling police dogs. We'd read of a brilliant young lawyer by the name of Thurgood Marshall, whose arguments in Brown v. Board of Education led the Supreme Court to strike down a false doctrine of "separate and unequal." We were marching for the ERA in the streets of New York, but we had faith that the law would respond to just impulses because Roe v. Wade had expanded the meaning of equality and freedom for all Americans.

I went to law school because I believed the struggle for justice I'd seen in the movement against the war could still be advanced in a courtroom. I still believed the law was a way to give power to those who had been denied it and to give a voice to the voiceless. I couldn't wait to put that belief to the test first as a student prosecutor working in the DA's office, and then as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

My faith in the law was reaffirmed. We modernized the district attorney's office and ended a backlog of thousands of cases to deliver justice on time. We took on criminals who preyed on the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. We helped kids who were abused and neglected. We worked with police who needed to know that we had reformed and revitalized the justice system so the criminals they risked their lives to track down didn't fall through the cracks of a big bureaucracy.

And we helped create one of the nation's first rape crisis crime units - at a time when violence against women was a subject that was often swept under the rug. I remember speaking with the women who would come into our office. The terror they had experienced. The fear that was in their eyes. But most of all, I remember their dignity and determination in the face of the most terrible crimes. It's an every day reminder I carry around with me about why I must do everything in my power to support the rights of women and to take on the cowards that attack our mothers, sisters, and daughters.

I'm sure that many of the students who are graduating from this law school this year begin their legal career for idealistic reasons of their own. I applaud you and all your fellow students for your dedication to this important profession. Yet, as you no doubt know from your studies, you are beginning your legal careers in a very different era. Instead of paving the path of equality and freedom, too many recent court decisions have served as roadblocks.

Make no mistake there are many, many wonderful judges sitting on the bench around the country and sitting in this room here tonight. They work everyday in a legal system that is overburdened. They do their level best to implement our laws, make real our Constitution, and protect our rights. They are respected in their communities and sources of pride our country.

Despite all that, I believe we cannot afford to ignore a disturbing trend in our judicial system. In the past three years, courts have struck down or weakened important sections of the Violence Against Women Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And they have continued to steadily erode the right to choose.

This change in the wind isn't just a natural swing of the pendulum, it isn't a coincidence, and it isn't an accident. It seems instead to be part of a process of politicization in our legal system. This process should concern all of us who look to the courts for justice and wisdom.

Drake Law School's Supreme Court competition was begun sixty-six years ago, in 1937, with the goal of fostering good relations between the school, the bench, and the bar. At that time, Americans feared that politicians were trying to subvert the independence of the courts. This concern is as important now as it was then. Our courts should never be wholly owned subsidiaries of one political party, one point of view, one ideology, or one President.

Last year, President Bush told an audience that, "We've got to get good, conservative judges appointed to the bench and approved by the United States Senate." With all due respect, I disagree. I don't believe we need conservative judges or liberal judges or anything but patriotic American judges who will enforce the laws and the Constitution of the United States.

Whenever one party attempts to turn judicial decisions into political debates, it causes Americans to doubt the independence of the courts and to question their role. But most importantly, it takes important issues out of the realm of legislation and executive actions areas where the people, through their voice and their votes, can exert influence. Instead, crucial choices on policy matters are made by judges acting in a super-legislative capacity. In these instances, the quality of justice for all suffers. But those that suffer most, are those who most need protections and equality. This includes minorities, gays and lesbians. Tonight, I would like to focus my remarks on women and what the politicization of justice means to them and their lives.

Judicial nominees by the present Administration have records that I believe are troubling to American women and those that support their equal rights. Judges like Charles Pickering and Priscilla Owen have long records of opposition to Roe v. Wade, have sought to restrict laws barring sexual discrimination, have supported a ban on interracial marriage, and have worked to narrow laws on gender discrimination. Nominations to the courts should not be occasions to advance partisan agendas but rather opportunities to advance justice.

I believe recent judicial decisions and nominations have made American women less safe and less secure - on the job and on the streets. And I believe our government and our legal system needs to be back on the side of women standing up for their security, ensuring their safety, supporting their rights, and guaranteeing their dignity. This nation can do no less.

I strongly feel that we do not need more judges that embrace the types of views that led the Supreme Court to recently strike down parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act - a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation that is the Civil Rights Bill to those with disabilities and the shining legacy of your great Senator, Tom Harkin. Unfortunately, the Court found that a nurse who had been demoted for missing work because of her breast cancer treatments could not hold her employers accountable for their actions under this act.

And this year, the Court is looking at potentially weakening the Family and Medical Leave Act. I have joined a brief to the Court arguing that this fundamental protection for American women and families should not be undermined.

Our legal system, of course, extends beyond the courts. Over the course of the past two years, Attorney General Ashcroft has presided over an unfortunate politicization of the Justice Department. Civil rights enforcement has been cut back and anti-domestic violence efforts have been eliminated.

But perhaps no decision better symbolizes what judicial politicization means for American women than the decision to strip down the Violence Against Women Act. This piece of legislation told America, "We will put the power of the federal government on the side of battered women who have had no voice." Bonnie Campbell, Iowa's former Attorney General, led the nation in recognizing the terrible toll of violence against women. All Americans owe her a debt of gratitude.

The Violence Against Women Act was passed by Republicans and Democrats alike. Not a single member of the House of Representatives voted against it. Yet, the right of women to sue their attackers in federal court was struck down.

And as if that weren't enough, Nancy Pfotenhauer, a strident opponent of the Violence Against Women Act, was appointed to the government body which is charged with guiding the Act's implementation. Pfotenhauer opposed the Violence Against Women Act when it was in Congress and supported the challenge to it at the Supreme Court. Talk about the fox guarding the chicken coop.

Pfotenhauer's organization even claims that - quote - the battered women's movement has outlived its useful beginnings. With studies showing that one in five women will be victims of a rape or attempted rape in the course of their lifetime, I'd say that the fight to prevent violence against women is still in its useful beginnings. We have a long way to go.

I was proud to help lead the effort in 1994 to create specialized anti-domestic violence efforts through the COPS initiative. And we saw the number of domestic violence incidents drop by about twenty percent in four years. When that type of effort is completely eliminated, I believe it sets us on the wrong track.

We need to be concerned about the affirmative action initiatives which millions of American women depend on for justice and fairness. And we must safeguard Title Nine of the Civil Rights Act. Just last week, an Administration commission on Title Nine came back with recommendations that would gut a law that has opened doors for millions of girls and young women. These recommendations have been rejected on a bipartisan basis and for good reason.

And finally there is the issue of choice. This issue is about the right of American women to control their own bodies, their own lives, and their own destinies. It is about their right to make their own decisions in consultation with their doctor, their conscience, and their God.

Anyone who has talked to or knows a woman who has faced this dilemma knows how difficult, how painful and how lonely it can be. We can't go back to the days of back alleys - days in which women were shamed by the high and mighty and forced to put their lives at risk. We can't put women in the place where their choice is to break the law and be branded a criminal. Women need access to information, to choices, and to their legal rights.

It won't surprise you to know I think that elections for Congress and the Presidency are important. But appointments to the bench are just as important - maybe more so. Senators and Presidents come and go. Judges rule for a lifetime. Those of you in law school now could be dealing with the rulings of some of these new judges for most of your legal careers.

And while they only see a tiny percentage of federal cases, there is a reason the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. It is there that debates are settled, that doctrines are set, and that millions of Americans look for justice and wisdom. In recent years, we have seen a court that has split five to four on important cases. With divisions so great, it is important that the next appointment to the Supreme Court be an individual who can bring consensus, not conflict. At a time of war, the American people have no stomach for another partisan confirmation battle. If a retirement opens up, our discussion should be an occasion to focus on the Constitution and what's right, not on confrontation and wrangling.

I believe we should work to expand the rights and opportunities for women and help make it is easier to be a good employee and a good parent. We should strengthen and restore the Violence Against Women Act and put the federal government foursquare on the side of women who have been threatened, endangered, and harmed.

We should improve the Family and Medical Leave Act to help even more Americans care for their children and their parents. Millions of Americans are struggling to do right by their children and often their aging parents. We need action to help them balance work and family.

We should protect Title Nine and its guarantee that women get a fair shake.

We should make sure that an equal days pay for an equal days work is a reality and not just a slogan.

And we must ensure that the right to choose is never abridged, never weakened, and never taken away.

Through the appointments that are made to important legal positions and through the actions we take, we will make the lives of American women stronger and more secure. Women deserve a government that honors and respects them as individuals and as citizens.

When we discuss laws and courts, judges and decisions, it is sometimes easy to forget what is really at stake. But at its heart, this issue is about more than marble columns and majority opinions, more than black robes and the black letter. It is about women like Christy Brzonkala. Christy was in the September of her first year at Virginia Tech when she stopped by the room of two men one night on her way home from a party. I won't go into the brutal details of what happened next, but it changed Christy's life forever. When she reported to the school that she had been raped, they dithered and then did nothing. So she took the men to court under the Violence Against Women Act. It was her case that the Supreme Court used to turn back that law. Christy and all the other women, and men, of this country look to the courts for justice and they deserve just that.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that, "The mark of a good judge is a judge whose opinion you can read and have no idea if the judge was a man or a woman, Republican or Democrat, a Christian or a Jew. You just know he or she was a good judge." Those are the kinds of judges we need in American once again. Judges who respect human dignity, protect our rights and liberties, believe in genuine equality. Judges who know that "Equal Justice Under the Law" isn't just an inscription, it's a promise. That is a promise that all of you who are here tonight from first year law students to Supreme Court Justices believe in. That is the type of justice - and the type of Justices - that all Americans deserve.

Thank you.

John F. Kerry, Remarks in Des Moines, Iowa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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