Human stories behind judicial rulings


by Peter Irons

New York: The Free Press

420 pp. $22.95

`THE way I see it, it was a good thing we done this case,'' ``J.D.'' Shelley says now. ``When all this happened, when I bought the property, I didn't think there was going to be anything about it. But I knowed it was important. We was the first ones to live where they said colored can't live.''

J.D. - everyone calls him that ``but the initials don't stand for nothing,'' he says - was a Mississippi construction worker who in 1945 migrated to Missouri to seek a better life for himself, his wife, Ethel, and their six children.

The Shelleys used their savings of $5,700 to buy a small house in St. Louis. But a few days after moving in, they were served with an eviction summons that led them to fame, intimidation - and the United States Supreme Court.

The Shelley saga is one of 16 stories of courage and perseverance of average Americans that University of California political science professor Peter Irons tells in this volume.

Although they didn't know it then, J.D. and Ethel had purchased a home covered by a restrictive covenant designed to prevent ownership or occupancy ``by people of the Negro or Mongolian race.'' The ordeal of the Shelleys - and the taking up of cudgels for them by the NAACP and other civil rights groups - is told in vivid terms by Irons.

This modest black family survived community threats and conflicting judicial rulings - and eventually won the right to keep their home. In 1948 Fred Vinson, then chief justice of the United States, wrote for the court's majority in striking down racial covenants in the states.

``The Supreme Court ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer swung a wrecker's ball against the legal fences that surrounded America's black ghettoes,'' Irons says.

Most of the cases have made legal history. But few of the participants are remembered. The author, however, has sought them out to tell the human story - as they remember it - behind the judicial ruling. Many are as simple and poignant as J.D.'s.

Many of the issues are still pressing and controversial today - such as the flag salute, loyalty oaths, school prayer, abortion, homosexuals' right to privacy, and legalized abortion.

Irons's purpose is not to pass judgment on any of these cases but to strike a broader note for individual rights. He loses no opportunity to reinforce his strong belief that political, racial, and economic intolerance has no place in the American system.

Irons points out that struggles such as those the Shelleys faced, will manifest themselves on judicial dockets in various forms as long as racism and discrimination exist.

``The constitutional issues of the future,'' he predicts, ``are likely to include the limits of AIDS testing, surrogate parenthood, the rights of aliens, privacy in the workplace, and the boundaries of the public forum.''

Peter Irons brings a unique perspective to this collection of judicial tales. As a lawyer, he was active in securing a recent appeal for three Japanese-Americas convicted in the 1940s of violation of federal wartime curfew regulations. The story of Gordon Hirabayashi, one of the trio, is included in this volume.

A previous book by Irons, ``Justice at War,'' details the wartime internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and focuses on violations of their constitutional rights during the period.

The preface to ``The Courage of their Convictions'' tells of the author's experience as a draft resister during the Vietnam war. Irons served three years in federal prison after unsuccessfully challenging how exemption laws were applied.

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