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Recalling how a Supreme Court justice, when discussing illegal immigration, used an ethnic slur

May 11, 2010 | 12:03 pm

Chief Justice Rehnquist

Arizona’s tough new law to combat illegal immigration has prompted all sorts of chatter -- passionate and emotional, analytical and angry. With all that chatter, it might have been easy to miss a jaw-dropping anecdote about a future Supreme Court chief justice tossing about an ethnic slur.

The anecdote comes to us from the always insightful Times columnist Tim Rutten. In a commentary about the possible impact of Arizona’s new law -- which was written by state Sen. Russell Pearce. Rutten recalled how the Supreme Court deliberated an earlier case concerning undocumented immigrants.

We’ll let Rutten take it from here:

Anti-immigrant groups already are lining up in support of Pearce because, if passed, his new bill might give them a chance to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 ruling that struck down Texas' attempt to deny public education to undocumented immigrant children. The Plyler decision is a bete noir to many conservatives, who regard Justice William Brennan's opinion on behalf of the 5-4 majority as a kind of high-water mark of judicial activism.

Pearce and his supporters are fishing in particularly angry and ugly waters with this new initiative, for the court's deliberations on Plyler took an unusually personal turn. According to Brennan's notes, at one point during their conference on the case, Justice William H. Rehnquist, the future chief justice, referred to the plaintiffs as “wetbacks.” When an angry Thurgood Marshall objected to the slur, Rehnquist -- who had practiced law in Arizona for nearly 20 years -- replied that the term was commonly used where he came from. Unappeased, Marshall demanded an apology, comparing it to the vulgar epithet for blacks to which he'd been personally subjected. Rehnquist declined to back down.

Commonly used. Well, other offensive terms -- for the Irish, Italians, Jews and African Americans -- have been commonly used at various points in the country’s history too. Follow this link for Rutten's column.

-- Steve Padilla

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Photo: William H. Rehnquist in 2003. Credit: Associated Press

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