Legal challenges preserve a paradise
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is an adaptation of an essay submitted
by a high school student for application to the 2004 Legal Heritage Institute
sponsored by the Foundation of the State Bar of California. Forty aspiring lawyers
were chosen to learn about government and law-making during two weeklong institutes
in Sacramento and Los Angeles.
By Rebecca Delshad
We all imagined it as a paradise — the only place on earth where your
personal rights were guaranteed and your opportunities endless,” my Mom
explained to me of her perceptions of America as a 19-year-old foreign exchange
student from Iran in the 1970s.
But what makes the United States so different, so alluring compared to the
rest of the world? It cannot solely be the personal liberties and natural rights
which the Constitution assures, for the governments of China, Iran, Cuba and
Saudi Arabia also claim to serve their people, yet most of their citizens live
in oppression, poverty and fear.
Perhaps what makes America’s democracy uniquely effective is the power
it endows in the individual to openly challenge laws that he believes violate
his constitutional rights. This power is important to people in our society
because without it, there would be no opportunity to change or improve the status
quo. Also, it provides the opportunity to pursue equality before the law, which
is essential to democracy.
Even in America, citizens’ liberties might not be granted if the individual
could not fight for them. In the past, many groups were denied natural rights
and were excluded from the democratic process guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Today, however, these groups have been able to make significant advancements
through the process of challenging the prevalent set of laws and ideas.
Women are a primary example. Through structures such as the National Organization
for Women, they gained many rights and privileges from all aspects of society.
One result was the passage of the Equal Pay Act, which set a precedent against
gender pay discrimination.
Another, of course, was Roe v. Wade, which invalidated previous laws
prohibiting a woman’s right to get an abortion based on the constitutional
right to privacy. Although this case obviously did not permanently settle the
issue of abortion, it achieved fundamental changes in securing women’s
These developments prove the pertinence of individuals being able to test laws
they believe to be discriminatory or unfair. As each law is reformed, the society
becomes more representative of, and fair to, each person in it — and that
is what makes the society democratic. As a member of the Women’s Awareness
Club at my high school, I appreciate the efforts of women before me who challenged
the norm and provided me with all the opportunities I have today.
I also realize the fortune of being a part of this society when I compare it
to Iran. If my parents had not moved to the U.S., my rights as a woman would
have been suppressed under a black veil of darkness and my opportunities would
have been cut short solely because of my gender.
In my ancestral country, as in similar nations, the government exudes its authority
to suppress voices challenging existing laws; here in the U.S., challenges to
the law are considered, debated and often times enacted.
Another important group knows that to be a fact: Through centuries of struggle,
African Americans have made a lasting impact and have secured equal rights through
determination and willpower. From Plessy v. Ferguson, to Brown v. Board
of Education, and continuing today, African Americans have fought to transform
the nation from “separate but equal” to a progressive society outlawing
segregation of any kind. To me, their struggles represent the racial diversity
and eventual acceptance of all people and all creeds in America. I appreciate
this even more, for I know of the inequality and discrimination of religious
minorities that greatly contributed to my parents leaving their native country.
Even here in America, however, where protective laws exist, their true meaning
comes from the manner in which they are enforced. A person cannot rely on the
legislative system alone to protect his or her rights. All of us must be aware
of our constitutional rights and use those rights to challenge laws that engender
inequality or discrimination.
When Americans contest injustices, great accomplishments often result, and
without that special capability of publicly opposing an unjust law, democracy
could easily fall apart as the people lose control and the government acquires
more power. It is this freedom to express opposing views, challenge existing
laws and effect social change that greatly contributes to my Mom’s, and
now my own, image of the American paradise.
Rebecca Delshad will be a senior at Calabasas High School in Calabasas.