Under the law there are certain time limits to sue for a wrong allegedly committed. The issue is whether there should be a statute of limitations for actions by a person who is in public service.
This question came up in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. The alleged conduct occurred when Brett Kavanaugh was 17 years old and in high school. He was 53 at the time of the hearing. Since the date of the alleged conduct in 1982 he has had a stellar career, including as White House Secretary to President George W. Bush and appellate court judge for the DC Circuit. There is nothing in his record of public service that indicates that he condones the behavior that he was alleged to have done. Twenty-five of Kavanaugh’s 48 law clerks have been women, and 13 have been people of color. Whether high school misconduct should be a disqualification to be a Supreme Court Justice became a moot point since the most salacious claims were not proven.
The Virginia governor Ralph Northam is under fire for a yearbook picture from 1984 when he was in medical school. The picture showed a person in blackface and a person in a white robe, which represented the KKK. The governor issued a statement: “Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive. I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service.”
It is not claimed that he has a record in public service that shows any animosity toward African-Americans. It is merely the yearbook picture that has resulted in calls from both parties for him to resign.
There have been public servants who have been involved in worse conduct but were allowed to be on the Supreme Court. For example, Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan before he became a senator from Alabama. He then was elevated to the Supreme Court and was a justice from 1937 to 1971 and was one of the members of the famous Warren Court. He was on the Court when it ruled landmark civil rights rulings such as Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that separate but equal is unconstitutional and prohibited racial segregation in schools.
Earl Warren, as attorney general of California in 1942, advocated for and carried out the forceable resettlement of Japanese-Americans. In 1953 he was appointed to the Supreme Court, where he remained chief judge until 1969. The Warren Court is known for being the court that made many rulings that give civil rights and defendants’ rights, such as Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona. I believe that both Black’s and Warren’s experiences when they were younger had an effect on their rulings as judges.
For example, Warren in his memoirs indicated that he “deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens… Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends, and congenial surroundings, I was conscience-stricken…[i]t was wrong to react so impulsively, without positive evidence of disloyalty.”
In today’s climate, neither Black nor Warren would have been considered for the Supreme Court.
It should not be surprising that a culture that worships youth over experience would have such an attitude. They do not appreciate that as people mature they come to regret things they did in their youth. If a person is the same at 50 as they were at 20 then it indicates a lack of maturity.
It is time to place a statute of limitations for objectionable non-criminal conduct. Mistakes made in youth should not disqualify a person who for many years has acted as a proper public servant.
Warren S. Hecht is a local attorney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org