Who Judges The Judges?

Was it normal Supreme Court idiosyncrasies or post-September 11th racial blowback? A recent incident at the U.S. Supreme Court, where Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist ordered a young Indian woman to remove a scarf on her head because it apparently made him uncomfortable, would indicate some of both.

The Supreme Court has a very restrictive dress code, likely enhanced now by security considerations, that is strictly enforced upon entering the building. This is why Roopa Singh, a second year Berkeley law student, who is interning in Washington, DC at National Public Radio, was surprise at what unfolded.

After being admitted to the press corps section, she noticed that the Chief Justice appeared to be scowling in her direction. After a moment, he whispered something to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and left the room apparently to instruct the Court police to tell Singh to take off her headscarf.

According to Singh, a guard told her it was “making some of the justices uncomfortable,” and had to be removed, which it was. Later, a Court spokesperson claimed that the scarf was seen as a hat, which is not allowed except for medical or religious purposes. Singh does not claim that she wore the scarf for religious reason, but for style and comfort.

By all accounts it was not outrageous or disrespectful by even the most conservative standards. Even the Washington Post reported the scarf “matched her blouse and that it went nicely with her navy blue suit, was upscale and quite fashionable.”

The Court’s statement that it was viewed as a “hat” does not explain why Singh was not asked to remove it when she entered the court nor Rehquist’s glower. In fact, what the incident demonstrates is the frightening degree to which those in power feel bold enough to police broader and broader areas of personal choice and lifestyles.

This intolerance is bolstered and undergirded by regressive racist and sexist views that further marginalize millions. This incident seems to imply that even if religious headwear is allowed, Rehquist’s own prejudices (and that of other judges) make him less than accepting of difference and an increasingly diverse legal community.

As Singh insightfully notes, even if she had been able to keep her wrap on for religious purposes, “I would have felt just as bullied and ostracized.” Since the incident and the ensuing publicity, Singh has received hundreds of supportive emails and calls, and reports of similar incidents, from a broad cross section of society, who are also frustrated with the level of intolerance that grips too much of the nation.

Reports of racist intolerance at airports, supermarkets, and health clubs toward Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, Indians, Africans, and anyone appearing to be such are becoming legendary since last Fall. Singh is in great company, however.

More than 100 years ago, another lawyer, who coincidentally was also of Indian heritage, was also thrown out of a court for refusing to remove his headdress. His name was Mahatma Gandhi.

Singh’s resolve has been strengthened and she has returned to the Court to carry on her work. The day after the scarfgate, she was admonished by some Court officials who were upset that she had went to the press with the story (duh, she works at NPR!) and not given them a chance to explain their side of the story.

She also believes that she caught a whiff of arched eyebrows from the Chief Justice. She perseveres, however, and clearly is determined to be the kind of lawyer that defends, rather than offends, a society that is truly democratic and inclusive.

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Clarence Lusane, Ph.D.The London Goodenough CollegeMecklenburgh SquareLondon WC1N 2AB0207-837-8888 ext. 5006 (from the US: 001-44-207-837-8888 ext. 5006) 07789-230-464 mobile (from the US: 001-44-7789-230-464) clusane@igc.org

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