For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, and given this blog’s focus, we examine Dr. King and the state Supreme Court, specifically whether any opinion has relied on the civil rights leader for support.  A Westlaw search reveals it’s happened only twice, and both times in dissenting opinions.  Also, both citations seem to be strained invocations of King.

In Deronde v. Regents of University of California (1981) 28 Cal.3d 875, a 4-2 court allowed the UC Davis law school to consider “ ‘ethnic minority status’ ” as a factor in choosing which students to admit.  Justice Stanley Mosk dissented, saying the majority had “rejected the plea of Justice Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) 163 U.S. 537, 16 S.Ct. 1138, 41 L.Ed. 256, for a colorblind America, the rallying cry for civil rights martyrs from William Lloyd Garrison to Martin Luther King.”  (28 Cal.3d at pp. 891-892.)

Claiming King as an affirmative action foe is a stretch.  Among other things, he wrote, “Our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.  How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis?”  Not surprisingly then, when proponents of Proposition 209 — the 1996 initiative that effectively overturned Deronde and severely limited affirmative action in California — attempted to use King’s “I have a dream” speech to support their cause, King’s widow and son objected, stating, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s words . . . clearly indicated that he supported affirmative action.  Those who suggest that he did not support affirmative action are misrepresenting his beliefs, and indeed his life’s work.”

The second King mention is in a case where a 5-2 court limited UC Berkeley from requiring its students to pay an activity fee that might finance political and ideological causes the students disagreed with.  (Smith v. Regents of University of California (1993) 4 Cal.4th 843.)  Justice Armand Arabian dissented, concluding his opinion this way:  “The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, ‘Morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated.  Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.’  [¶]   Our role as guardians of the law and of the Constitution charges us with the duty of safeguarding against unwarranted encroachments of others’ rights by those who require restraint.”  (Id. at p. 891.)  Is it just me, or does the connection between Dr. King’s quoted sentiment and the litigation before the court seem tenuous and overblown?