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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 rights.

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.

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