Arguing a Big Case Before the Supreme Court

supreme-court-case-rick-stegeOne of the biggest moments in my life was to argue – and win – an historic case before the United States Supreme Court.   I did it when I was a young lawyer (32 years old) working for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.   I embraced the challenge of taking Mrs. Inez Moore’s case, a case which she had flat-out lost in the Ohio Supreme Court, to what is known as the highest court in our land.

It is hard to imagine today, but in the 1970’s the predominantly white City of East Cleveland – fearing a flood of African Americans from Cleveland – passed a criminal ordinance defining what a “family” could consist of in East Cleveland.   It was a peculiar definition, one that began by allowing a “nuclear family” (husband, wife, minor children) to live under one roof, allowing adult children to be part of the “family”, and allowing the grandchildren of ONE adult child to be part of the “family” – but, making it a crime to for any other relatives to join the family household.

In Inez Moore’s household, two of her sons lived with her (that was OK), but since each had with him a son of his own (which was not OK) she was convicted of a crime.   A dignified woman by nature, she appealed her conviction and the United States Supreme Court – in a narrow 5 to 4 vote – threw out her conviction as a violation of the Constitution of the United States.    The vote was so close that had not Justice Brennan persuaded Justice Powell to change his vote at the last minute, we would have lost.

How could four justices, and nearly a fifth, vote to uphold an ordinance that strikes at the heart of the rights of family members to live together?    That’s because looking back to another historic case arising out of Greater Cleveland, Euclid v. Ambler Realty in 1926, municipalities were given great latitude in exercising their “police power” to enact zoning codes, housing codes, and building codes.   Not only was that tradition hurdle to be overcome, but the words “family rights” are not found anywhere in our Constitution.   Instead, they arise from a web of Supreme Court decisions protecting such rights as the right to educate one’s children (Meyer v. Nebraska), the right to marry a person of your choice (Loving v. Virginia), and the right to chose whether or not to bear children (Griswold v. Connecticut).   Still, it was not easy for Justice Powell – who ended up writing the pivotal opinion in the Moore case – to justify a result in favor of Mrs. Moore.   But he did through an interpretation of the due process clause of the United States Constitution.

Today the Moore case is required reading for every first year law student and it has been cited nearly 7,500 times in  later Supreme Court opinions, opinions by other courts of law, and scholarly publications .    I look back on it and marvel over the struggles of this brave woman, the fact that I had the privilege of being part of her life, the creative work my associates and me put in to achieve this victory, and the fact that I stood before the Supreme Court, took the toughest questions the Justices could hurl at me, was articulate and persuasive and — most importantly – did not back down one inch.

Since then I have continued to fight for ordinary people.   I went back before the Court a second time with equal success.    I am proud of the fact that I have stood up for injured people from different walks of life and have brought them a measure of justice.   I hope I have set an example for younger lawyers today who are not afraid to take risks, resist the lure of the almighty dollar, and stand up for what is right – not blindly, but thoughtfully and with preparation and courage.

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