Emotions Run High in Cross-Burning Debate
Washington, Dec. 11--(AP) Normally stoic and silent during arguments, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas found his voice Wednesday, condemning cross burning as a symbol of oppression during "100 years of lynching" in the South by the Ku Klux Klan.
The subject also evoked strong emotions from his white colleagues, who joined in expressing concern about violence and racism during arguments in the second cross-burning case to reach the Supreme Court in a decade.
Justices are considering how far states may go to discourage the Klan and others from burning crosses, a provocative practice rooted in racial hatred but still given some free-speech protections. At issue is the constitutionality of a 50-year-old Virginia law that bans cross burning.
The arguments produced an unusually candid look at the justices, particularly Thomas, who generally speaks only once or twice a year during arguments and refuses to give interviews. "This was a reign of terror, and the cross was a symbol of that reign of terror. Isn't that significantly greater than intimidation or a threat?" Thomas, the second black to serve on the court, asked a Bush administration lawyer who supported the law.
The Supreme Court historically has been protective of First Amendment rights of the most controversial of groups, including burners of the American flag, adult entertainers and even cross burners. Michael Dreeben, the deputy solicitor general defending the Virginia law, said crosses historically have been used to intimidate minorities and that more than a dozen states have laws punishing the crime.
Thomas, who was raised in segregated Georgia, said burning crosses were used to intimidate blacks and other groups. "We had almost 100 years of lynching and activity in the South by the Knights of Camellia and the Ku Klux Klan," Thomas said. "It was intended to cause fear and to terrorize a population."
The last time Thomas spoke at such length was 1995, his fourth year on the Supreme Court, in another case involving a KKK cross display. The Klan won in a 7-2 ruling, joined by Thomas.During Wednesday's argument, the justices repeatedly interrupted the lawyers and sometimes talked over each other. "The cross has acquired a potency that is at least equal to that of a gun," Justice David H. Souter observed. Justice Antonin Scalia, perhaps the most conservative member of the court, said blacks would prefer to see a rifle-toting man in their front yard rather than a burning cross.