In the midst of their daily routines, Jamestown residents pass by a flag post located outside the Robert H. Jackson Center. Engraved on the flagpole are quotes from Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson. One of the quotes is a segment of Jackson’s opinion on the West Virginia State Board v. Barnette case. This opinion was recently listed as the “greatest moment” in Supreme Court history.
“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from…political controversy. One’s… fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”
Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote an article in the Bloomberg View briefly describing the five greatest moments in the history of the Supreme Court. For Sunstein, the foundational importance and “sheer eloquence” of Jackson’s opinion “helped orient many liberty-protecting decisions,” and was worthy of being proclaimed as the most important decision in US legal history. Although Justice Jackson passed in 1954, his reputation has granted him a spot at the forefront of US Constitutional law, and it is the mission the Robert H. Jackson Center to preserve and promote his legacy.
“Can states compel students to salute the American flag? The Barnette case was decided in the midst of World War II, when the court might have been expected to be reluctant to strike down any effort to promote patriotism. But Jackson had his eye on what the nation was fighting for, and responded, ‘Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.’ “
– Cass Sunstein
In 2006, the Robert H. Jackson Center and the Supreme Court Historical Society cosponsored a panel discussion that examined the Court’s decision in Barnette. The panel participants were the Barnette sisters, Gathie Edmonds and Marie Snodgrass, and Bennett Boskey, a law clerk to former Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone from 1941-1943. The roundtable discussion was moderated by John Q. Barrett, St. John’s University School of Law professor and Elizabeth S. Lenna Fellow at the Robert H. Jackson Center. Other participants included Shawn Francis Peters, professor of journalism and mass communications at University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses, and E. Barrett Prettyman, a former law clerk of Justice Robert Jackson and the current vice-president of the Supreme Court Historical Society. Local attorney and co-founder of the Robert H. Jackson, Gregory Peterson introduced the members of the panel discussion.