Kentucky’s Courageous Attorneys General, Past and Present

More than a half century ago, my parents gave me for Christmas a copy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage.” It was a collection of stories about United States senators through history who somehow stood up to the prevailing sentiments of their day to take stands that, in time, would earn them special places in history. Among those he included were John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton and Robert A. Taft. A bipartisan group, facing some of the thorniest issues of American history ranging from slavery to fair trials.

In Kentucky these past weeks, we’ve seen some examples of profiles in courage worthy of Kennedy’s pantheon: U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II’s decision overturning sections of Kentucky’s anti-same-sex marriage constitutional amendment, and then on Tuesday, Attorney General Jack Conway’s bold announcement that he would not, as the state’s chief legal officer, appeal that ruling in court. Mr. Conway, a Louisville Democrat, correctly placed his action in the ranks of others in America who have recognized the scourge of injustice and tried to make it right.

“From a legal standpoint, I draw the line at discrimination,” Mr. Conway told Time magazine. “If you think about it, in the long arc of history of this country, at one time we discriminated against women, at one time we discriminated against African Americans and people of color, we discriminated against those with disabilities.”

As indeed we have. Only four years ago, when Mr. Conway was a candidate for U.S. Senate, his opponent Rand Paul told me in a meeting of the editorial board of The Courier-Journal, in an exchange that has been forever memorialized on YouTube, that he had problems with the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it legally prohibited discrimination. Similarly, he had problems with acts to protect the disabled because they put unfair burdens on employers, he told one of my colleagues.

Mr. Paul, who went on to win that election in the great groundswell against President Obama, health care reform and progressivism, is on the wrong side of history. Time has shown that to be the case for decades. And Mr. Conway, one predicts, is indeed on the right side.

Thirty-some years ago Kentucky had a bright young Attorney General named Steve Beshear, a former state senator and by all accounts a future senator or governor. As happened elsewhere, our state was swept up in the frenzy of the religious right, which feared that crime, communism and abortion were the product of godlessness, and their solution was to post in public places and schoolrooms copies of the Ten Commandments.

(Actually, the public veneration of the Ten Commandments really didn’t begin until the mid-1950s, when Hollywood showman Cecil B. DeMille directed the grand story of Moses and the Decalogue. As part of the Paramount Pictures public relations campaign, Mr. DeMille traveled the country unveiling granite markers on capital grounds posting the Ten Commandments. Kentucky was the beneficiary of one such marker. I saw the movie in the summer of 1959 at the Skyway Drive-In, several years after its roadshow release. I fear I fell asleep for a time about when the Hebrew babies were killed, but before the Red Sea was parted.)

When I was a small boy, we learned the Ten Commandments in catechism classes. We always giggled about the words “adultery” and “my neighbor’s ass,” but we also were aware of the awesome power of God’s word. Actually, my most effective instruction in the Ten Commandments came less from my Sunday School than from sitting with my mother and grandmother in the afternoon and watching “As the World Turns” on television. There, I saw every commandment broken, often every month. In real life, I have also seen the commandments forsaken. Humans do that, but God’s word revealed by Moses remains more vivid than any politician’s words.

Well, back to Mr. Beshear. The Kentucky Ten Commandments law was artfully and deviously written. It allowed private sources to fund the printing and posting of the Decalogue in public schools, a ruse that was supposed to remove the government’s imprimatur. The Supreme Court of the United States would have none of that. The high court struck down the law on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The state schools superintendent tried to defy the decision, but young Mr. Beshear, then just 36, said no. He issued an advisory opinion stating that a display of the commandments in public school classrooms under any circumstances was banned by the Court’s ruling. And so it was followed.

That was a profile in courage, worthy of John F. Kennedy’s endorsement. And for many of us, it was reason to continue to support Mr. Beshear’s career, decade after decade, through loss and victory.

But Tuesday, when now-Governor Beshear undercut his elected colleague, Attorney General Jack Conway, he descended into the realm of base politics, old fashion and, well, shall we say, at odds with the course of history and democracy. At great monetary expense to the state and taxpayers (who are being asked to see higher education funding cut by nearly 3 percent), he will hire a “special” counsel to appeal the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. And, who knows? Onward to the U.S. Supreme Court? He says that the “people of this country need to know what the rules will be going forward. Kentucky should be part of this process.”

So said governors of the Old South in the 1960s. Ross Barnett. George Wallace. The list goes on and on. They used the court system and their powers as chief executives to thwart the mighty flow of freedom, but in the end they were defeated. I remain a great admirer of Governor Beshear, and his accomplishments, both as attorney general and as chief executive of the commonwealth.

He must have reasons of his own for following the path. But Mr. Conway, I believe, is on the side of history when he says, “Where are we as a country now, this really seems to be the only minority group that a significant portion of our society thinks it’s still OK to discriminate against.”

Some may call that political folly.

I call it a profile in courage.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday during Here & Now.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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