“Remarkable but relatively obscure” – that’s how Judge Paul T. Watford of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit described the 1945 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Screws v. United States. In presenting Marquette Law School’s annual Hallows Lecture on March 4, Judge Watford aimed to lift the decision from some of its obscurity and increase awareness of “the birth of federal civil rights enforcement,” as the title of his lecture put it.
The case began with the vicious and fatal beating of Robert Hall, an African-American man, by M. Claude Screws, the sheriff of Baker County, Ga., and two of Screws’ deputies. Judge Watford said the circumstances of Hall’s death provide a window into how African Americans of that era had to live with the “ever-present reality” of unwarranted violence against them by white law enforcement officers. Even given the many witnesses to Hall’s death, Georgia authorities declined to prosecute Screws and his deputies. But, in what Watford described as an unusual development for that time, a federal indictment was issued against them for violating Hall’s civil rights.
Ultimately, a splintered Supreme Court did not do all that civil rights advocates would have wanted, but the justices upheld the application in situations such as this of 18 U.S.C. § 242, prohibiting violation of civil rights by someone acting under the color of law. The majority of justices rejected the argument that civil rights violations were a matter to be left to the states, although no single opinion commanded a majority.
“Had Screws come out the other way, and been decided against the federal government, federal civil rights enforcement would have been stifled,” Watford said. “Instead, it was given new life, and that helped change the course of history, particularly in the South, in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Watford said, “Screws provided an emphatic rejection of the narrow view of federal authority to protect civil rights that had led the Supreme Court to strike down many of the Reconstruction-era statutes,” decisions that had helped perpetuate the status quo for black people in the South. “The Court made clear that the federal government could play a significant role in forcing states to change practices that seriously disadvantaged minorities.” Watford noted that Screws was a key precedent for the Court in Monroe v. Pape, the 1961 decision invigorating the now-famous Reconstruction Era statute codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The Screws decision in itself didn’t spark the momentous civil rights developments of the 1950s and 1960s, Watford said. “Rather, political and social forces had to mobilize to make that happen. But I think it is fair to say Screws removed one potential barrier to further federal intervention in the South.” He said the decision may have created momentum leading to the more far-reaching Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s that brought about fundamental social change.
Judge Watford’s Hallows Lecture may be viewed by clicking here.
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