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Marshall University's Student Newspaper

The Parthenon

Marshall University's Student Newspaper

The Parthenon

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Amicus Curiae Focuses on Harlan

Peter+Canellos+speaks+on+the+life+of+Supreme+Court+Justice+John+Marshall+Harlan.
Sarah Davis
Peter Canellos speaks on the life of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.

It takes immense courage to be a stand-alone national judge, an editor said in the final Amicus Curiae lecture of the 2023-2024 school year.

“The reason that we’re here remembering him is because he was one against the many,” Peter Canellos said.

Canellos shared a discussion on Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, who served the court from 1877 to 1911, at the lecture on Thursday, April 11. Harlan, a Kentuckian lawyer, served as an associate judge under the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Canellos is the managing editor of enterprise at Politico and has authored books, including the topic of Thursday’s lecture, “The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero.”

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Canellos argued that Harlan was a living example of growth, as he started off as an average, agreement-seeking judge for the time.

“For five years, he was a rather unexceptional judge,” he said. “It was the period when all of the rights that were won for African Americans, by African Americans during the Civil War were peeled away one by one by the Supreme Court, and the country went into a period of segregation – the effects of which we’re still coping with today.”

It wasn’t until 1883, when the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was questioned by various mistreatments of African Americans, that Harlan stood up for what he believed in. He began writing dissents that would spark opposition and change in the courts, hence the title Canellos gave him.

“Harlan agonized over this decision,” Canellos said. “He was under tremendous pressure to make it unanimous but, in the end, stood up strongly for civil rights.”

Perhaps Harlan’s biggest act of courage occurred in 1896, when he dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson. He said, “Our constitution is color blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

Canellos said dissents like the one in Plessy v. Ferguson allowed for Harlan to make his mark on America, both then and for generations to come.

“Harlan’s dissents became more and more forceful,” he said. “Imagine how different history would look and legal history would look and trusting the legal system would be if those cases had all been unanimous.”

“At this unique, dark, terrible moment in history, Harlan was a beacon of light,” Canellos said.

The Amicus Curiae lecture series is sponsored by Marshall’s Simon Perry Center for Constitutional Democracy and the West Virginia Humanities Council.

With the Spring 2024 Semester ending in less than two weeks, Canellos’ lecture marks a pause for the series. Patricia Proctor, the director of the Simon Perry Center, said the next lecture will focus on women’s rights. 

“Our next presentation in the lecture series will be in August for Women’s Equality Day,” she said. “We’re doing an Amicus Curiae lecture by a speaker who’s written a phenomenal book on the state of women’s legal history up to right this minute.”

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