“The Importance of Civil Rights in the Practice of Law”, a lecture by Randolph McLaughlin
“Question authority.” It’s not what you expect to hear from an accomplished law professor, but Professor Randolph McLaughlin drove these words home to the audience in his lecture. After a lengthy and impressive introduction detailing his education and myriad accomplishments in civil rights cases, I was left unsure of what to expect. The lecture that followed was every bit as well-informed and thought-provoking as I anticipated, but I hadn’t foreseen the edgy direction he took with it.
McLaughlin, a Pace Law School professor, was here in honor of Constitution Day—a day of special historic significance to the Marist community considering that the Constitution was ratified right here in Poughkeepsie at the Dutchess County Courthouse. Much of the lecture looked at the Constitution through the lens of civil rights, a subject in which McLaughlin has been—and continues to be—heavily involved. And progress in civil rights, of course, can only happen when people question authority.
However, no amount of questioning would matter if it weren’t for the ever-changing nature of the Constitution. McLaughlin drew largely from the work of Thurgood Marshall to demonstrate the ability of people to make a difference and the Constitution’s equally important ability to adapt to societal change. Marshall’s case-by-case deconstruction of the “separate but equal” law put in place in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case eventually led to the Supreme Court overturning this law.
McLaughlin brought the subject into the present by comparing the African American civil rights movement to the current same-sex marriage issue. The Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, gave states the power to deny legal same-sex marriages. The law was declared unconstitutional in 2013, but not without years of work. McLaughlin, while maintaining a healthy sense of optimism, made sure not to ignore the effort and struggle that goes into changing our laws for the better. While the Constitution is a powerful framework for the improvement of civil rights, society is far from perfect. “If society was perfect, I’d be out of work,” joked McLaughlin. While it was a lighthearted moment, it still had a deeper message behind it that encouraged all of us in the audience to get involved and do our parts to make the law as fair and equal as possible.
The lecture can perhaps best be summed up with McLaughlin’s own words: “I don’t love the law. I love what I can do with the law.”
-Ian Dorset, Marist ‘15