Note: this op-ed was originally published in the Tennessean, and was written by Checks & Balances member Ed Larson.
Ninety-five years ago, John Raulston, a then-obscure judge in Dayton, Tennessee, made a decision that sullied his name and the state’s reputation. He refused to allow witnesses for the defense in the infamous Scopes “monkey” trial.
This disappointed many. Before the trial, he invited both sides to call experts to debate the merits of Tennessee’s new anti-evolution law. The state’s celebrity prosecutor, famed orator William Jennings Bryan, had done the same by calling for “a battle royale” in the courtroom over the statute, which banned schools from teaching “any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible.”
A fateful decision
In response, the defense assembled a stellar panel of Christian theologians and scientists from Nashville, Princeton and Chicago to testify that science was compatible with scripture. After failing to find comparable experts for his side, Bryan moved to exclude all such witnesses. Inappropriately pressed by the governor, Raulston reluctantly sustained the prosecution’s motion, resulting in Scopes’ summary conviction.
While some partisans welcomed Raulston’s ruling at the time, history has condemned it. Here was a chance to do what the judge and both sides initially wanted: examine the evidence and help resolve this matter in the public mind. Instead, Tennessee was widely ridiculed for staging a kangaroo court or religious inquisition. “Inherit the Wind,” the ever-popular play and movie about the trial, pillared the exclusion of witnesses.