The Supreme Court and Fundamental Freedoms; President Obama Faces Major Challenges

Article excerpt

Byline: Nat Hentoff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Although he is absorbed in extraordinarily extensive and imminent problems, President Obama, I hope, will find just an hour to look at, in a sonogram, developing human beings before they are born. Then he might revoke his promise to join many congressional Democrats in supporting the Freedom of Choice Act that annuls many states' restrictions on abortion, such as informed consent, parental involvement and state-funding laws.

If this is his first experience with what a sonogram reveals, he may, as happened to a very pro-choice law professor I know, take a little more time to see more of those unmistakable lives. The law professor was startled to realize that one of the two human beings during an abortion has no choice.

Another wish concerns a decision by National Public Radio, whose news and investigative reports I find invaluable. For one of many examples, Nina Totenberg's deeply informed and lucid accounts of Supreme Court decisions excel more than those anywhere else in the media.

Yet NPR has chosen to end in March a program, News Notes, that is the very definition of public radio in that its range of information on black culture, history, politics, news from Africa, and education and health issues are unavailable on commercial radio. And it is the only black-themed program on NPR.

I listen regularly five nights a week, nearly always learning something new about a subject I thought I knew a lot about. For example, I've written for years about black gospel music as a basic root of jazz, but one night on News and Notes, I was riveted by a guest's strikingly illuminating account of the history and continuing influence of this spirit-lifting music that created Mahalia Jackson and Charles Mingus, among many other phenomena. At the very least, NPR should tell News and Notes listeners why it is interring so valuable a resource (which has been on since 2005). It can't cost that much to air these conversations that include dissents and updates.

My next hope for this year recalls Clarence Earl Gideon in his cell at Florida State Prison years ago, writing to the Supreme Court of the United States in pencil on prison stationery that he was too poor to hire a lawyer to defend him in a criminal case and had been denied one by the courts.

Gideon cited the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a fair trial that included the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. His note was delivered and the Supreme Court listened. On March 18, 1963, the high court unanimously agreed with the penniless prisoner that the right to assistance of counsel is fundamental to a fair trial.

Writing the decision, Justice Hugo Black, whose Bill of Rights writings should be mandatory in our schools if they ever have civic classes again, said: Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our system of criminal justice, any person hailed into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided. …