Second Amendment, judicial independence and Modesto’s Supreme Court ties

Law professors from Pepperdine addressed students and members of the public during a previous American Heritage Scholarship Series lecture.
Law professors from Pepperdine addressed students and members of the public during a previous American Heritage Scholarship Series lecture. The Modesto Bee

It is a longstanding judicial maxim that “no man should be a judge in his own cause.”

The first recorded use of that phrase in California came in in a probate case before the California Supreme Court in the 1880 case of Estate of Crosby.

As a former teacher, former elected official, and current probate attorney, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of an independent judiciary. The framers understood this too, and built into the Constitution a co-equal judicial branch of government, headed by a Supreme Court.

This month, the Supreme Court is again in the news, as the Senate considers a nominee with lifetime tenure to fill the seat of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy (a California native). In youth, Kennedy was mentored by Gov. Earl Warren, who went on to become one of the Supreme Court’s most influential chief justices.

The Central Valley enjoys other ties to the nation’s highest court. Justice William Brennan Jr. was described by the late Antonin Scalia as the most influential justice of the 20th century, and his brother, Francis Brennan, lived in Modesto. Francis had an equally penetrating legal intellect, and practiced law as the chief counsel at E.&J. Gallo Winery.

More recently, Modesto’s Eric Grant clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, and also clerked for retired Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. He has argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, the California Supreme Court and numerous other federal and state appellate courts. The son of Modesto’s Curtis and Nancy Grant, he currently serves in the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. as deputy assistant Attorney General.

Eric Grant will present a talk on the Second Amendment – colloquially referred to as the “right to bear arms” – at this year’s American Heritage Scholarship Series program, at Beyer High’s Little Theater auditorium on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. The public is invited to attend.

High school juniors and seniors are invited to write essays on how the “right to bear arms” should be interpreted and enforced in 2018. Essays are due Oct. 17. Scholarships will be awarded to winning essays, initially judged by readers from throughout community with finalists graded by members of the Stanislaus County Superior Court bench.

The American Heritage Scholarship Series, in its 17th year, was started in the wake of 9/11 to encourage high school students to engage with our Constitution, helping them under what their “American Heritage” is all about.

One of the founding members of the series was Grant, (a retired professor who also lectured for the series). It’s fitting his son returns to Modesto to deliver this year’s lecture.

Eric Grant has also agreed to speak to Modesto Rotary (his dad’s a member there, too) on a second topic: Practicing Environmental Law in and for the Trump Administration.

Though the Grants have impressive credentials, these are conversations we all should be having. The survival of our democracy depends on it.

More than ever, our country must wrestle with that longstanding judicial maxim against judging one’s own case, and its corollary, that no one is above the law.

The rule of law forms the hallmark of our society, even if usually in the background. This election cycle, that maxim has become more pronounced as we debate:

Is the President above the law?

Should the President be able to pardon himself?

Should the President nominate a Supreme Court Justice who believes presidents are not subject to civil subpoena or criminal indictment?

Should a President, who can appoint or fire the IRS commissioner, be forced to release his tax returns?

Some or all of these questions will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. Some will fall to our legislative branch. But it is up to “We the People” to ultimately hold our leaders accountable, and to ensure the rule of law is maintained.

As a probate attorney, I know the holdings in Estate of Crosby have ramifications far beyond the probate courtroom. It is a formula for good governance and the very survival of our democracy.

WIlliam Broderick-Villa is an attorney at Curtis Legal Group and serves on the steering committee for the American Heritage Scholarship Series.