For a certain generation or two, there is a single, definitive source on the legislative process, “I’m Just A Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock!:
If you’re under forty years old, “I’m Just A Bill” probably taught you everything you know about how Congress works. I’m sure you remember how it ends:
Boy: By that time it’s very unlikely that you’ll become a law. It’s not easy to become a law, is it?
But how I hope and I pray that I will,
But today I am still just a bill.
Congressman: He signed you, Bill! Now you’re a law!
Bill: Oh yes!!!
But that’s not the end of the story. Once a bill becomes a law, that law has to be enforced. In “I’m Just A Bill,” the law in question requires that school buses stop at all railroad crossings — but somebody has to make sure that actually happens. There has to be some sort of consequences for school bus drivers and school systems that don’t follow the law.
We have plenty of laws on the books that don’t mean a thing because nobody can enforce them. Just this week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in First American Financial Corp. v. Edwards. In the case, Denise Edwards was buying a home and so asked a company, Tower City Title Agency, to help make sure all the paperwork was in order. Tower City, in turn, sent Denise to First American Financial to buy an insurance policy just in case Tower City was wrong and the documents turned out not to be in order.
Denise didn’t know, however, that First American Financial paid Tower City to send Denise their way — an arrangement that violates a bill that really did become a law (in 1974, the year before “I’m Just A Bill” came out), the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. She found lawyers willing to take up her cause, and they’ve been fighting the lawsuit for several years now. The Supreme Court, though, isn’t so sure that anyone can use the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, and so this week heard arguments from the company that no one can sue unless they can show the arrangement affected the price or quality of the service.
Then there are other laws that nobody ever even thought to use. Consider this old video of some law student named Barack Obama talking about Charles Hamilton Houston, the civil rights advocate who came up with the legal argument that eventually made segregation unconstitutional in America:
So let’s put that into song:
I’m just a law.
Yes, I’m only a law.
And if you want me to help, you see,
you’ve got to enforce me.
You need to know that I’m here,
and get a lawyer to sue
Then convince the courts
that’s the right thing to do.
Which brings us to Charlotte Murphy. Over at the Women’s Law Project:
The Women’s Law Project provided legal assistance to Charlotte Murphy, now a fifth-grade student at Linden Elementary School, who took the fight for gender equity into her own hands when her school disbanded the Linden girls’ basketball team in the middle of its season.
Struck by the injustice of losing her team when the boys’ basketball team was allowed to play, Charlotte wrote to Superintendent Linda Lane, charging a violation of “title nine.” The nine-year-old requested and won a meeting with the Superintendent, who assured her that the team would be restored the following year and pledged renewed efforts to ensure that girls and boys would be treated equally in all aspects of the [Pittsburgh Public Schools] athletic program.
Nine years old. She and her teammates were wronged. It’s easy enough for grown adults to cry, pout, and give up when they’re wronged, but not Charlotte. She was aware of the law — Title IX was a bill that became a law in 1972 — and then summoned the courage to push back against the governmental authorities that virtually control her world through most of the waking hours. She called the right people. She prepared her argument.
And she won.
I’ve written before that law is made on a lawyer’s desk — and I continue to believe that the court opinions of tomorrow begin first with creative lawyers pushing the boundaries of the law — but that’s not the whole story. Sure, lawyers play an important role. But law is made primarily through people like Charlotte Murphy who have the awareness to recognize their legal rights have been violated and have the courage to pursue justice.