Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Maricopa Superior Court

 Image from the Clerk of the Superior Court of Maricopa County website

Maricopa County Courthouse, 2010 (photo by Carshenia Butler)
125 West Washington, Phoenix, 85003

Maricopa County, which encompasses metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona, is not a county where people were known to have progressive attitudes toward race relation especially in recent years with the ratcheted anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the political leaders in Arizona.  However, Maricopa County, and more specifically Maricopa County Superior Court, was a leader in progressive civil rights during the 1950’s thanks to the Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale of Phoenix.  The Ragsdales were Civil Rights activists in Phoenix and worked with a number of multi-racial coalitions to eradicate segregation and bring about equality for African Americans and other minorities in Arizona.  The Ragsdales, along with Hazel B. Daniels (the first African American to pass the Arizona State Bar), and Herbert B. Finn were key players in the little known case that ended school segregation in Arizona and set precedent for a future well known Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). 
Phillips v. Phoenix Union High Schools and Junior College District, No. 72909 Opinion and Order, (Ariz. Super. Ct., Feb. 9, 1953), was a case brought before Maricopa Superior Court beginning with a complaint filed on July 2, 1952 on behalf of Robert B. Phillips, Jr., Tolly Williams, and David Clark, Jr. who were students at Carver High School which was the school for children of color in this segregated school district.  The representing attorneys for the African American boys were Hazel Daniels, Herbert Finn, and Stewart Udall with the support of the Ragsdales along with their fellow coalition of civil rights activists.  And on February 9, 1953, Judge Fred C. Struckmeyer, Jr. ruled in favor of the African American youth and ordered that schools in Phoenix be integrated “with all deliberate speed.”  Judge Struckmeyer further acknowledged that though states had the right to legislate school segregation “a half of a century of intolerance is enough” and “democracy rejects any theory of second-class citizenship.  There are no second-class citizens in Arizona.”  The district appealed the decision but decided on July 7, 1953 to discontinue the policy of segregation and the Supreme Court of Arizona ruled the appeal moot Phillips v. Phoenix Union, No. 5570, Certified Copy of Order Dismissing Appeal as Moot (Ariz. Nov. 10, 1953). 
Because segregation was still legal under United States law, another school segregation case was decided in Maricopa Superior Court by Judge Charles C. Bernstein the first Jewish Judge in Arizona history.  The case was Heard v. Davis, No. 77497 Memorandum Opinion (Ariz. Super. Ct., May 5, 1954) and was brought in regards to the policy of segregation in the Wilson School District.  Judge Bernstein ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and found that “statutes that give school districts the authority to segregate students solely based on color are unlawful” and “educational opportunities, advantages and facilities afforded and available to the white children of elementary age were not equally afforded to African American children of elementary age.”  This decision followed precedent of Plessey v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), that established the separate but equal doctrine that segregation thrived on.  And although Heard v. Davis was decided at the same time the United States Supreme Court was preparing to decide Brown v. Board, Phillip v. Phoenix Union was decided 14 month prior to the Brown decision and was even used as precedent by Thurgood Marshall and co-counsel during the Brown proceedings.  Unfortunately, because Arizona was not the site of much of the racial violence as was the situation in the Southern part of the United States, these groundbreaking rulings that happened in the Maricopa County Superior Court are not well known.  However, they are portraits in Arizona history and this court house was a very historically significant place in the Civil Right Movement whether it has been acknowledged or not.  
- Carshenia Butler, Debra Groves, and Edell Stinett 
Goddard, T. (2005, march). The Promise of Brown v. Board of Education. Retrieved November 28, 2010 from Arizona State Government:
Heard v. Davis, 77497 (Maricopa County Superior Court may 5, 1954).
Judicial Branch of Arizona Maricopa County. (n.d.). Law Library. Retrieved October 30, 2010 from The Judicial Branch of Arizona:
Phillips v. Phoenix Union High School and Junior College District, 72909 (Maricopa County Superior Court February 9, 1953).
Whitaker, M. (2005). Race Work: The Rise of the Civil Rights in the Urban West. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

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