As the first black justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Thurgood Marshall is perhaps the most well-known African-American justice. Prior to his appointment to the High Court in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Douglass served as Solicitor General and before that on the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. As a lawyer, he won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. As a Supreme Court Justice, he continued to be a guardian of fairness and equality under the law. Yet Marshall — nor Clarence Thomas, who succeeded him as the second African-American Supreme Court justice in 1991 — is not the only black justice to have left his mark on the American justice system.
Black judges such as William Hastie, Spottswood Robinson, Constance Baker Motley, A. Leon Higginbotham, Damon Keith and Amalya Lyle Kearse all led the way as jurists and presided over some of the most important cases of the 20th century, even as they faced racism in their personal and professional lives.
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Guillaume Hastie (1904-1976)
In 1937, Hastie, a graduate of Harvard Law School, became the first African-American federal judge when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the Virgin Islands District Court. Before becoming a federal judge, Hastie taught at Howard University, where one of his students was Thurgood Marshall. Hastie would resign as a federal judge to become the dean of Howard Law School and later to try civil rights cases with Marshall.
In 1950, Hastie became the first black federal appellate judge after being appointed by President Harry S. Truman to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. As a judge for 21 years on the Third Circuit, Hastie was known as a “pragmatic progressive” and for an allegiance to the importance of “stare decisis,” or legal precedent.
Hastie was considered for the Supreme Court by President John F. Kennedy, but, according to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, he faced opposition from Chief Justice Earl Warren, who allegedly argued that Hastie was “not a liberal” and that “a lot of people in the White House objected to having a ghostwriter.”
On this subject, Hastie was more pragmatic about President Kennedy’s decision not to appoint him to the Supreme Court. “Well, there’s no question in my mind that it was a deep personal commitment as opposed to a political maneuver,” Hastie said. “It is perfectly clear, I think, that many of his advisers advised him against his position on the grounds that it would be politically catastrophic, that it would alienate Southern leaders and much of the Southern electorate, and could well cost him re-election.”
Spottswood W. Robinson III (1916-1998)
After serving as an attorney on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Robinson, a graduate of Howard University Law School and later its dean, was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the district. of Columbia in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, becoming the first black judge to serve on that court.
As a lawyer, his colleague Jack Greenberg, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, described him in the New York Times as a “curious combination of a lawyer specializing in real estate law. . . and a constitutional lawyer, who knew the major policies of the Constitution as expressed in the Constitution. In his 23 years on the Court of Appeal, Judge Robinson, who was the son of a lawyer, wrote pioneering opinions on civil rights, equal employment law and administrative law.
Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)
In 1966, after President Lyndon Johnson nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Motley’s confirmation process was delayed seven months by Senator James Eastland, a white segregationist from Mississippi, who objected to his work on behalf of Brown v. Ed’s Board of which she is the author of the original complaint in 1950.
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Motley, who would eventually be confirmed, served as the first African-American female district court judge. In the Southern District of New York, Motley has distinguished herself in several women’s rights cases. In Blank versus Sullivan & Crowell, In 1975, in a landmark class action lawsuit alleging gender discrimination against several high-profile New York law firms, Motley was asked to recuse herself on the basis of her gender. In his rejection of the recusal, Motley wrote:
“[I]f the origin or sex or race of each judge were, by definition, sufficient grounds for impeachment, no judge in that court could hear that case, or many others, because they were all lawyers, of one gender, often with distinguished backgrounds in law firms or public service. »
A. Leon Higginbotham (1928-1998)
Serving for nearly 30 years as a federal judge, Higginbotham, who called himself a “segregation survivor”, was active in civil rights issues, serving as vice chairman of the Kerner Commission in the administration of Lyndon Johnson following the urban riots of the 1960s.
In 1974, while serving as a judge in the Eastern District, Higginbotham refused to recuse himself in a race discrimination case. “I acknowledge that I am black,” Judge Higginbotham wrote in his opinion in Com. of Pa.v. Local 542, Int’l Union of Operating Engineers. “I am rationally proud of my heritage, just as most other ethnicities are proud of theirs. However, being black does not mean, ipso facto, that he is anti-white; nor does being Jewish imply being anti-Catholic, or being Catholic imply being anti-Protestant. Like most black people, I believe the halls of this country’s history have been lined with countless instances of racial injustice.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Judge Higginbotham the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Damon Keith (1922-2019)
As a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Keith, who was originally from Detroit, made a famous decision in United States vs. Sinclair that Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, had to release transcripts of wiretaps he authorized without first obtaining a search warrant. Known as the “Keith case”, Sinclair has been upheld by both the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court.
The grandson of enslaved workers, Keith is the author of many First Amendment rulings, including Melton v. Young, where he ruled that public school officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee could suspend a student for wearing Confederate flag attire without violating the First Amendment because the flag caused disruptions to school activities.
In 2019, Keith was a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit when he died aged 96.
Amalya Lyle Kearse (1937-)
Appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Kearse became the first black female appellate judge. She is the author of the 1984 decision McCray versus Abrams, which made it more difficult to discriminate in jury selection on the basis of race.
Kearse also challenged the idea that all people of the same color would see things the same way. She wrote that these attitudes “artificially limit the ability of black people to participate in our justice system and perpetuate an abhorrent proposition of racial inferiority that has been banned in virtually every area of public affairs – in employment, in the education, in property rights.”
Kearse has been considered for the United States Supreme Court by three presidents. She continues her work in the Second Circuit, where she has a higher status, which means she hears a limited number of cases.
READ MORE: Black History Milestones: A Timeline