October 20, 2003

Carter lays down challenge for law

By Eric Rangus

The speakers may have been seated in big, comfy easy chairs, but the subject of conversation between former President Jimmy Carter and church scholar Martin Marty was anything but soft.

"What Happens to Children in Peril?," the second installment of the Family Forum Series 2003–2004, is what brought the two men together on the School of Law’s Tull Auditorium stage, Tuesday, Oct. 14.

Marty, Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Religious Studies, played the part of interviewer, prompting Carter for comments on subjects ranging from his own childhood to the struggles of children in the developing world.

Perhaps the best term to describe Carter’s answers would be "challenging." Especially to any law students sitting in the audience of more than 300.

At the end of Marty and Carter’s conversation, which ran about 50 minutes, Carter fielded questions from the floor, a rare occurrence. One question came from an audience member who had visited Angola and had seen many children in poverty, on the edge of survival. What would be the first step in helping? he asked.

Carter, as a preface to his answer, said he was intrigued by the idea of the Family Forum Series, which is part of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion’s (CISR) three-year study "The Child in Law, Religion and Society." Marty is co-directing the project with CISR Director John Witte.

No doubt the project participants will produce several volumes, Carter said. "But what is the Emory law school going to do about it?" he continued, referencing the problems in Angola brought up by the questioner.

"I would guess nothing," Carter said. "Zero impact from this forum will benefit that child in Angola. But there are things an individual student in law school might do. There are good places to go." Carter suggested churches; he mentioned the Peace Corps.

"Each person has to decide: How much am I going to do?" Carter said.

Individuals were not the only recipients of challenges from Carter. He also spoke to law schools—not just Emory’s but all of them, calling for the beginning of a fight to end what he called legal discrimination.

"What can we do about the gross discrimination against minorities in our communities," he said. "No law schools or ministers said much against segregation, and it’s almost as bad now as it was during the 100 years of legal racial discrimination. If [law schools spoke out], I think it would send reverberations through the legal community."

To back up his thoughts, Carter told a somewhat chilling story. "All three of my boys smoked pot [growing up]," he said. "I knew it. But I also knew if one was caught he would never go to prison. But if any of my neighbors got caught," Carter said, adding that his neighbors were black, "they would go to prison for 10, 12 years. No law school has had the temerity to look at what is fundamentally wrong with our legal system, which discriminates against the poor."

"In fact, we’re addressing many of the problems President Carter mentioned," said School of Law Dean Thomas Arthur, afterward. "For example, our Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic helped draft legislation expanding the protection of children in Georgia’s foster care system; our students are working with Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, on unjust death penalty cases; and my predecessor and alumni worked with the Chief Justice’s commission on indigent defense to develop and pass legislation that provides adequate public defenders."

Seated in the School of Law’s largest auditorium, Carter clearly knew who his audience was, and while he was able to make strong statements on a variety of subjects, he also spent a great deal of time addressing the forum’s core issue—the plight of troubled children at home and around the world.

Responding to questions from Marty, who kept their discussion moving at a comfortable pace, Carter reflected on his own childhood, which he described as "privileged," not only because he came from a stable household but also because he was white.

He recalled one instance when he was a teenager, walking with two black friends, both of whom would step back, letting Carter go first when necessary. "Their parents had impressed on their minds that they had to be subservient," he said.

Marty seized on Carter’s mention of a "privileged" upbringing and asked him about the perils faced by children from relatively affluent backgrounds. Carter said many children now do not have the strong family structure he had while growing up.

"There’s no doubt that I had a life of stability, nurture and protection," Carter said, adding that while his father was very strict, as long as he did his work, he was given a great deal of freedom. "But in many homes there is the opportunity or impetus for children to depart from family and cast their lot with peer groups who can seduce them away from the love of their parents into a life with temptations such as alcohol, drugs and sex. Living a life without constraints may lead to privileged children going astray."

Carter also spoke on the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 192 nations—but not by the United States or Somalia. The reason he gave is that this country insists on the right to execute children convicted of capital crimes. Carter said that by not ratifying the convention, the United States is "not setting a good example" for poorer countries.

"We don’t reach out to them, and we don’t have the motivation to do it," he said. "There is an extreme and unacknowledged division between rich folk and poor people who we don’t care about at all."