THE CLAIM BY Iowa GOP Congressman Stephen King the other day that white people – or people from the United States and Western Europe – are the only ones who have made a contribution to civilization reminds me of a day in 1988 when I was sitting in a Houston federal courtroom, substituting for the regular federal courts reporter.
At issue before U.S. District Judge Woodrow Seals was whether undocumented immigrant children were entitled to a free education in Texas (he later ruled they did).
It had been a long, dreary day of testimony from various experts when I heard Seals ask a witness what struck me as a stunning question to a witness who had claimed that Texas schools had the capacity to handle both English and Spanish-speaking students.
“Why should English students have to learn Spanish when they ought to be learning Russian, German, Chinese of Japanese?” he asked. “I have never seen anything of worldwide importance written in Spanish.”
He added that all major scientific works are published in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German or English, and that most important literature is being published in or translated into English.
Sitting there in the courtroom, I was in a state of semi-shock. Surely a federal judge had not just uttered the words I had heard and written in my reporters’ notebook – especially not a judge who was considered to be rather liberal (he was an LBJ appointee to the bench and had served as a U.S. attorney, appointed by JFK on the recommendation of liberal icon Sen. Ralph Yarborough)!
Had I heard right? Or had I misinterpreted something Seals had said?
If the judge had indeed said what I thought I had heard, that would be the lead of my story the next day, and that would be the headline. What if I got it wrong? What would I tell my editors and my colleagues? What would I tell the judge?
All these thoughts were scrambling through my mind while testimony continued and I attempted to take notes.
Finally, the session ended and I raced back to the newsroom to write my story. For a brief moment I thought about trying to interview Seals to confirm that he had made that claim, but I quickly ruled that out. I feared that if I did so, he would realize the significance of what he had said and could claim that he had said no such thing, and it would be my notes against the word of a highly respected federal judge.
So I decided to go with my instincts, to trust my ears. I wrote my story with the following lead:
“U.S. District Judge Woodrow Seals Friday questioned the need for public-school students to learn Spanish, saying he has never seen anything of worldwide importance written in Spanish.”
I included the quotes cited above.
(The headline was typical Houston Post euphemistic: “Seals questions necessity of public-school Spanish”.)
The testimony took place on a Friday and the next court session would not be until the following Monday, so I had the whole weekend to worry about the possible reaction by the judge. Would he blast me and humiliate me in public? Would he call my editors and demand a retraction? A pleasant weekend it was not going to be.
My worries only increased when I looked at the Chronicle the next day and saw no mention of the Seals remarks. Neither had there been radio or TV reports about them. It was my neck and my neck alone that was sticking out.
But on Monday, to my great relief, instead of anger, Judge Seals expressed remorse. In a statement he made before testimony began, Seals read a letter he had written to Rice University Professor James A Castañeda, who had protested the judge’s remarks.
The quotes, he said, “do not reflect my opinions about Hispanic people, the Spanish language, or culture. It was a most senseless statement for me to make.”
His words were dreadful, he said, “and I am extremely sorry.”
Not once did he try to deny them or claim that they were misunderstood or taken out of context. (I checked with a former journalism law professor who told me that such apologies from the bench were extremely rare.)
THAT WAS NOT to be the last time I would set aside caution and fear and trust my instincts as a reporter, and I think I can thank my experience with Judge Seals for that.
I never got to speak with Seals. I would have liked to, for I admired him for his honesty, and for his willingness to admit that he was wrong and apologize for it. In this day of non-apologies and mealy-mouthed semi-apologies, Seals’ candor would no doubt stand out as refreshing.