Barrett examines ethics of JFK, LBJ in civil rights era


Jessica White | Staff Writer

President John F. Kennedy made a statement in 1961 when he appointed Thurgood Marshall — who later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice — to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a country polarized by racism.

Though racial discrimination in judicial appointments is now a thing of the past, the country is perhaps more polarized than ever before, said law professor John Q. Barrett, and President Barack Obama has the chance to make a similar statement — by appointing gays and lesbians.

“Obama has spent some capital and demonstrated some very commendable, path-breaking commitments to equality in that area against deep opposition, but he also has not changed the world,” said Barrett, who teaches law at St. John’s University in New York City.

In a way, Obama’s position resembles Kennedy’s position in the early 1960s, Barrett said, when Kennedy did not want to discriminate by appointing on the basis of race. Kennedy wanted to put African Ameicans on the federal bench, but he was able to do little given the climate and opposition throughout the nation. During his brief presidency, such appointments became easier, but it was even more so for the next president, Lyndon Johnson.

Although the upcoming election is not one based solely on the issue of gay rights, Barrett said, Obama’s commitment to equality may be paving a similar path to Kennedy’s.

Barrett will discuss civil rights, the ethics of Kennedy and Johnson, and modern judicial equality at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Though he is a renowned teacher and lecturer, Barrett said he has not spoken about that particular topic, and he enjoyed preparing it for Chautauqua. Barrett has lectured at the Institution every summer since 2001.

When he was first asked to speak on the ethics of presidential power, Barrett said he wasn’t sure where to take this week’s theme. He decided to draw from his personal experience of working as a law clerk for A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. — one of the first black federal judges and a prominent civil rights leader. Higginbotham advised and served under both Kennedy and Johnson, so he was Barrett’s “personal window” to stories about the presidents.

Now, Barrett is writing a biography of former Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who began his career as a western New York lawyer and was a lifelong Chautauquan. Barrett has been working on the book for about 10 years, and he makes his process transparent through a subscriber email list called the “Jackson List.” The emails, which send subscribers a few notes about Jackson each month, now reach more than 100,000 readers worldwide.

“Lots of Chautauquans are on the Jackson List and forward it, so I’m very grateful for that,” he said. “It’s kind of a cutting room floor or glimpse into the work process as I work on the biography.”

Coincidentally, Barrett began working on the biography around the same time that the Robert H. Jackson Center opened in Jamestown. Barrett has partnered with the center, which also works regularly with Chautauqua and hosts an annual lecture on the grounds, and he has since become a fellow and member of the board.

Though his and other lectures this week will be packed with history, Barrett said the takeaway lesson lies in the timeless ethics. People’s ethics will likely vary, but he said he loves Chautauqua, because disagreements are civil, substantive and interesting.

“What’s important as we pick our leaders is ethics, is values, is commitment. And I would say among their values, what really matters is a commitment to equality,” he said. “Of course, you want a good national security policy, and economic policy and a bunch of things that seem better than the other guy, but I think we also need to look for values and value the candidate who’s more committed to equality, who’s less tied to the path.”