Back in the first few weeks of June, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement ebbed and flowed through social media and spilled out onto the streets in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, my head began to spin with a combination of shame and confusion. I’m a white woman with immense privilege and all the hallmarks of power. I am late and I have much to learn, but I want to do the work. I became an attorney because I like to solve problems and fix things. But how can I help to “fix” this when “this” is something as tangled and thorny as systemic racism that my own inaction has certainly helped to solidify? Cue: complete and total paralysis.
And then, just a couple of weeks later on June 15th, I watched my social media feeds erupt with applause over not just one, but two United States Supreme Court decisions that impact the lives of millions of people living in America. In the first decision – a ruling on a trio of cases – the Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibitions of gender discrimination in employment extend to sexual orientation and gender identity. In the second, the Court blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA and the protections it provides people who were brought to the United States as children, saying that while the Trump administration didn’t go about it properly (this time), the president does have the authority to end the program if he follows the right procedural steps.
Social media, or at least the folks I follow and subscribe to, canonized, knighted, and inducted into every hall of fame the liberal justices who joined the prevailing opinions in each of these cases and condemned those who didn’t.
It was as though the Court’s decisions over gay and transgender rights and in favor of “DREAMers”, though entirely unrelated to the global pandemic and examples of racial injustice otherwise leading the headlines, were a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, it is possible for a government body to do something right for once. I initially felt the same way: a sigh of relief, some good news coming from Washington, a win for minority groups.
But in the midst of all of the well-deserved celebration over these decisions – the most robust joy I’ve seen by a large group of people in a long time – sandwiched between #BLM outrage and isolation-induced lethargy, I also heard “finally!” and “what took so long?” and my paralysis was instantly cured; my ambitious lawyer came out and her is her response:
We need to stop asking or expecting our courts to do this work alone.
The courts are not intended to be lawmakers. It is not a judge’s primary job to make or even change the law and, in many ways, they are immune from the public’s demands. So, while we can be super pumped when courts rule in our favor or effectively make a change that we want to see in the law, the judicial process is not the most practical, timely, or efficient way to do the heavy work of updating our nation of laws. Judges making the law is like trying to change a flat tire with your bare hands, where first you have to wait for the tire to go flat.
But, guess what? We DO have a government body and leaders who have all of the tools they need to effectively, decisively, and in a relatively short amount of time make and change the law in one sweeping motion. Guess who? Guess who’s only job it is to make and change the law? Legislators! And who gets to pick legislators and thus influence the law? You do! You. Get. To. Vote. You get to write, call, and email those civil servants and TELL THEM WHAT YOU WANT FROM THEM. And, if they don’t do the job you hired them to do, or you don’t like how they do it, YOU FIRE THEM.
This is why voting along the issues you care about, at every level, is important. This is why we need people with good ideas and a conscience to run for office. Only our legislators can make the quick, big, and lasting changes we want to see in our country. Only our legislators can change a still decent tire with maybe just a slow leak with a jack and a lug wrench and replace it with a new, full-sized tire.
God love the attorneys who take on these issues for their clients, creatively and often as a labor of love, through the court system. The judges nationwide and Supreme Court justices (I see you, RBG) who are methodically finding ways to make decisions that incrementally, over a course of years, change the law for the better in areas where our legislators have failed us are heroes. But, as anyone who has ever been involved in litigation knows, it’s not exactly a speedy process and many judicial decisions (including the two “wins” noted above) leave some questions unanswered.
We cannot continue to wait decades, or even years, for the changes that need to be made today.
We need good legislators and we need to hold them accountable.
November 3, 2020 is approaching quickly. Put it on your calendar. Register to vote. Buy a warm coat. Take the day off work. Research candidates. Throw your own hat in the ring. And do it all now! Let’s not allow the issues that we will surely face – between absentee ballots and too-few polling sites, and the other barriers cowards will erect to keep us and our neighbors, especially our Black and Brown neighbors, from the polls – disrupt our commitment to make the distinct and certain changes we want to see in our country, right now.