Black’s Law Dictionary describes “Equality Before the Law” as “The status or condition of being treated fairly according to regularly established norms of justice; esp., in British constitutional law, the notion that all persons are subject to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary law courts, that officials and others are not exempt from the general duty of obedience to the law, that discretionary governmental powers must not be abused, and that the task of superintending the operation of law rests with an impartial, independent judiciary.
To put it another way, there’s one set of rules, and everyone supposed to play by the same set. That wasn’t always the case in the United States. For the first 80 + years of the country’s existence, we were plagued by slavery. And the next hundred years saw de facto segregation in everything from schools to drinking fountains.
But we’ve always had good examples of people who stood up for this principle of equality before the law.
We start six years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s March of 1770, in Boston, Massachusetts and tensions are high. British soldiers are set upon by a mob of boys and young men, calling them lobsters, and throwing oyster shells, trash, and snowballs. With the crowd growing increasingly hostile, and with the soldiers hemmed in, they opened fire. The first man killed was Crispus Attucks, a whaler – and a free black man. Five colonists died. It’s gone down in history as “The Boston Massacre.” The colonial governor had the guards arrested immediately, but the colonists were livid. A question was raised as to where these men should be tried. It was a delicate situation. There was a real feeling that the men could not get a fair hearing in Boston, which was essentially being occupied by the British troops at the time. However, moving the men to England for trial would have incensed the Bostonians even further. They would have interpreted it as a move to acquit these soldiers without a fair trial.
Two men stepped forward to defend these redcoats in a court of law – in a court of law IN BOSTON. They were John Adams and Josiah Quincy. They believed it was necessary to show that no matter what, Americans were people who put the rule of law before their passions. Adams and Quincy demonstrated that these redcoats were firing in self defense and that the crowd attacked first. In the end, all but two of the soldiers were acquitted, and they were convicted of only lesser charges. Quincy left the States in 1774 for England, where he attempted to find and bolster sympathetic British politicians to the American cause. He died on the return voyage in 1775. Adams would later sign the Declaration of Independence and become the second President of the United States.
Let’s move forward 94 years. It’s 1864. The country is reeling under a long and bloody civil war over (among other things) the question of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation has just been issued, and with it, the opportunity for African Americans to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces. This was a controversial decision. It was an election year. And a man running for office responded to his critics with these words.
“You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you, but no matter…. Negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive – even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept…. Peace does not seem so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon…. [Then] there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.”
Frederick Douglass later said of Abraham Lincoln that he was the only white man he ever knew who did not instantly make him aware he was a black man. A year later, the war was over. Upon hearing Lincoln make remarks about returning Louisiana to the Union on moderate terms, a popular actor of the day turned to a fellow conspirator, and declared “That means n—– citizenship!” and vowed it would be Lincoln’s last speech. Days later, John Wilkes Booth would put word to deed by killing the President. Abraham Lincoln was killed because he believed in the principle of equality before the law for all mankind.
Let’s move forward another 72 years. It’s January, 1935, and a black man – Donald Gaines Murray, is seeking admission to Maryland’s only school of law. He’s summarily rejected because “The University of Maryland does not admit Negro students and your application is accordingly rejected.” At the time, the doctrine of “separate but equal” held sway. The decision was appealed, and the refusal was upheld by the law school.
The case was taken by a local law firm. One of the men arguing the case was a 27 year old black man. He argued that the separate but equal doctrine denied equal protection of law, which was guaranteed by the 14th amendment. He argued that since Maryland had not provided a separate law school for black students, and that hence Mr. Murray should be admitted to the state school. He said “What’s at stake here is more than the rights of my client. It’s the moral commitment stated in our country’s creed.” (http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/murray-v-pearson-ruled) The circuit judge agreed, and issued a writ compelling the law school to admit Mr. Murray. And when that decision was appealed by the law school, the decision to compel the law school to admit Mr. Murray was upheld unanimously.
The young man who argued that case did so on the principle of equal protection before the law. But it would be almost twenty more years of fighting before Thurgood Marshall would argue before the Supreme Court in 1952. The case was “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka”– the case that desegregated schools across the United States.
These men believed in, fought for, lived by the principle of equality before the law.
And I suppose I should point out… all of them were lawyers. Lawyers have a pretty bad reputation nowadays, and they’ve done quite a bit to earn it. But if we’re going to set history aright, then that means accepting that without good lawyers, without men who were willing to step forward and act on principle, this country would not be the place we love so much.
And now, to set up a bit of contrast, here’s an op-ed piece that came out Wednesday the 23rd, 2010.
‘Tax-cheat Tim’ revisited: Court calls Geithner excuse ‘not credible’
By: Barbara Hollingsworth
Local Opinion Editor
06/23/10 1:15 PM EDT
A U.S. Tax Court has rejected the exact same defense that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used to explain his failure to pay self-employment taxes — namely, that TurboTax, the computer software program, was to blame for his failure to pay all of his federal taxes when he worked as a contractual employee for the International Monetary Fund.
The taxpayer in Monday’s case, who like Geithner worked for the International Monetary Fund, “failed to carry his burden of establishing that there was reasonable cause for, and that he acted in good faith with respect to, any portion of the underpayment for each of his taxable years 2005 and 2006…” the court ruled Monday.
The taxpayer in question had requested what he called the “accuracy-related penalties…[of $2,435.40 for 2005 and $3,655.40 for 2006 to] be waived” due to his supposedly “good faith” effort to correct his returns.
IMF is a unique employer in that it provides a W-2, but does not withhold federal income or FICA (Social Security) taxes. A 2006 audit by the IRS showed that Geithner owed $17,230 in back taxes and interest. Another $25,970 tax liability was discovered after he was nominated to be President Obama’s Treasury secretary.
The disclosure caused a political stir, because it meant a tax-evader would be in charge of the IRS. But Geithner insisted the mistakes were caused by TurboTax.
Likewise, the taxpayer in this case blamed TurboTax, and the court did not buy it: “At the respective times petitioner filed his 2005 return and his 2006 return he knew that he was responsible for self-employment tax. Nonetheless, neither his 2005 return nor his 2006 return reported any self-employment tax….We do not find credible petitioner’s claim that any such ‘experts’ told him that self-employment tax was included in the computation of petitioner’s tax in his 2006 return when that return itself did not report any self-employment tax.”
Historical information gathered from Wikipedia and William J. Bennett’s “America: The Last, Best Hope” v. 1.