California judge, civil rights advocates encourage courts to protect liberties

By Melissa Busch | Apr 7, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO — On the heels of the U.S. Senate confirming Neil Gorsuch as the 113th member of the U.S. Supreme Court, a California judge and civil rights advocates have called on state courts to do their parts to protect individual rights.

With Gorsuch in place, the court regains its conservative majority. Gorsuch replaces the late Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly last year.

California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu recently encouraged state courts to go beyond the high court in protecting basic liberties that would otherwise go unprotected, according to a story first reported in the San Francisco Gate.

Civil rights supporters hope more socially progressive states, like California and Massachusetts, will rely on their own laws to fight projected rollbacks by the high court on laws protecting abortion, LGBTQ and minority rights.

“A state power movement led by state courts may have a persuasive effect on conservative justices,” Laura E. Little, a Charles B. Klein Professor of Law and Government at Temple University Beasley School of Law, told the Northern California Record. “If they really mean what they say, and it’s not just political rhetoric.”

Conservatives speak of the importance of states' rights and reducing federal regulations, but their actions don’t always back up their rhetoric, Little said.

“The hypocrisy of conservatives is that their speeches of less federal regulation are only true when it is convenient,” Little said. “For social values, like legalizing same-sex marriage, their ideas to go by the state falls by the wayside if it is better for them to use federal power.”

“If state courts have a strong movement on individual rights and they (conservatives) mean what they say about local government, leaving more decisions in the hands of the state, then they should listen to that,” Little said. “But, if the public cares about a social value and they don’t agree, they are known to disregard it.”

During modern times, the U.S. Supreme Court has not strayed far from public opinion. For example, after states made same-sex marriage legal, the high court followed suit. Little said there a is a good chance that the high court likely won’t sway too far with Gorsuch on the bench. But, the public needs to be mindful that the liberal justices who remain on the bench also are the older members. The nation could see a real shift if the Trump administration has an opportunity to appoint another justice to the high court.

“That could be the real turning point,” Little said. “A major conservative majority could change things."

Prior to her law practice, Little served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in 1986.

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