Justice Thurgood Marshall

  • October 2, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    There really are very few Supreme Court justices worth celebrating and many more who are easily forgettable.

    But Thurgood Marshall, who joined the high court 45 years ago today, was a champion of equality before he became the first African American to join, at that time, the all-male, all-white Supreme Court.

    Marshall was named to the federal appeals court by President John F. Kennedy, and later to the Supreme Court by Lyndon B. Johnson. Both were historic appointments. As John Schachter notes in this post, much of Marshall’s life included historic achievements.

    After being denied admissions to the University of Maryland’s law school, because of racism, Marshall earned a law degree from Howard University and launched what would be a trailblazing legal career bolstering and advancing equality and liberty in the country.

    In 1940 he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has become one of the nation’s leading civil liberties groups. Before reaching the federal bench, Marshall, as a highly successful attorney, took to the courts and started toppling Jim Crow era laws, tawdry efforts to continue the oppression of African Americans. As Juan Williams wrote in Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, it was Marshall “who ended legal segregation in the United States. He won Supreme Court victories breaking down the color line in housing, transportation and voting, all of which overturned the ‘Separate-but-equal’ apartheid of American life in the first half of the century.” 

    Of course Marshall’s greatest victory before the high court came in Brown v. Board of Education, where he argued that the odious separate-but-equal principle aimed to keep African Americans “as near [slavery] as possible,” violated the Constitution.

  • August 30, 2012

    by John Schachter

    Forty-five years ago today, the U.S. Senate voted 69-11 to confirm Thurgood Marshall as the 96th Justice of the Supreme Court. That historic vote made Marshall the nation’s first African American justice and helped blaze a trail for others to follow.

    When President Lyndon Johnson nominated Marshall to the high court, he understood the historic importance, not just for the future of the court itself but for the broader issue of civil rights. Said Johnson, “I believe it's the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place.”

    Times sure have changed; only one of those 11 votes against confirmation came from the Republican side of the aisle. But Johnson did get some 20 other southern senators to abstain from the vote; they faced the choice of alienating portions of their constituencies who couldn’t stomach an African American on the highest court or voting against the president and his historic choice.

    Marshall’s background is well known, from his more than two decades with the NAACP to his myriad arguments before the Supreme Court, culminating in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education. President John F. Kennedy put Marshall on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then Johnson made him solicitor general before the final promotion.

  • April 18, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Do we need another chart or study or poll to remind us of how clueless a nation we can be at times? More than likely the answer is a resounding “no.” 

    But nonetheless, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza points us to 2010 Pew poll, which shows that many do not know the basics about the nation’s top court. According to the survey, 54 percent do not know who the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice is, and eight percent believe that Thurgood Marshall, who died in 1993, is the Chief Justice. At the time, four percent thought Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid was the Chief Justice.

    Cillizza suggests that a survey might not look so sad now, especially since the high court’s opinion in Citizens United v. FEC, and recent oral argument in the health care reform law case, have garnered widespread attention. Still Cillizza concludes we must remember, “Regular people are simply not engaged – they don’t know or care – about the intricacies of the government in a way that people who live inside the Beltway and spend their lives in politics are.”

    But really, are we talking about the “intricacies of the government”? Yes, there are state Supreme Courts, but there’s only one U.S. Supreme Court with nine sitting justices, including the chief justice – that’s John Roberts Jr.  

  • July 9, 2010
    Likely the most disconcerting moment of the Kagan Supreme Court confirmation hearings was the trashing of former Justice Thurgood Marshall by a gaggle of Senate Judiciary Republicans. The senators' attacks on Marshall as a wildly out-of-step, activist justice were sharply criticized by academics, such as Maryland law school professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill and civil rights advocates like the NAACP LDF's John Payton.

    In a recent article for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, University of Southern California law school professor and former Marshall law clerk Rebecca L. Brown explored the Republican senators' "highly troubling" attacks on Marshall.

    Brown, the Newton Professor of Constitutional Law at USC's Gould School of Law, wrote:

    What, then, is the object of the derisive remarks we heard last week? The only answer is the use to which Justice Marshall put his judicial methodology, in pursuit of the ideas and principles that he valued. As a justice, Marshall's vision of the Constitution was a document true to its promise of equal moral and political status for all; a document dedicated to protecting individuals from arbitrary and unfair treatment by government; a document protecting the integrity of the democratic process as one open to all people, all points of view, all economic classes, and all political parties; a document designed to protect freedom of conscience in all people from government orthodoxy, and to protect personal dignity from unwarranted invasion. These are some of the principles that Justice Marshall recognized in the Constitution and voted consistently to vindicate when he was on the bench. Justice Marshall's name is synonymous with these ideals.

    So when U.S. senators hold up the name of Thurgood Marshall as a negative symbol of judicial behavior, they are conspicuously condemning an understanding of the Constitution as a vehicle for protecting equality, fairness, electoral integrity, and autonomy, the ideas in whose service Justice Marshall voted in every case. And of course most saliently, because of Justice Marshall's personal history, first as a principle architect of the litigation strategy that ultimately dismantled Jim Crow, and then as the first justice who was a descendant of slaves, they are also painfully condemning in a broad symbolic sense the early successes of the civil rights movement itself.

    Brown's entire article is here (pdf), posted with the permission of Daily Journal Corp. (2010).