As the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall may be the best-known African American judge. Before his appointment to the high court in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Marshall served as Solicitor General and before that on the Second Circuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals. As a lawyer, he won 29 of 32 cases that 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 in the law. Yet Marshall—nor Clarence Thomas, who succeeded him as the second African American Supreme Court Justice in 1991; nor Ketanji Brown Jackson, who became the first female African American Supreme Court Justice in 2022—is not the only Black judge to make his mark on the American system of jurisprudence.
Black judges such as William Hastie, Spottswood Robinson, Constance Baker Motley, A. Leon Higginbotham, Damon Keith and Amalya Lyle Kearse all blazed trails as jurists and presided over some of the most significant cases of the 20th century, even as they confronted racism in their personal and professional lives.
William Hastie (1904-1976)
In 1937, Hastie, a Harvard Law School graduate, became the first African American Federal Judge when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the District Court of the Virgin Islands. Prior to becoming a Federal Judge, Hastie taught at Howard University, where one of his students was Thurgood Marshall. Hastie would resign from his Federal Judgeship to become the Dean of the Howard Law School and to later try civil rights cases with Marshall.
In 1950, Hastie became the first Black Federal appellate judge after being nominated by President Harry S. Truman for the U.S. Court of Appeals for 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 reportedly argued Hastie was "not a liberal" and that "a lot of people in the White House were opposed to having a Negro."
On the matter, Hastie was more pragmatic about President Kennedy’s decision to not nominate him to the Supreme Court. “Well, there’s no question in my mind that this was a deep personal commitment as distinguished from a political maneuver,” Hastie said. “It’s perfectly clear, I think, that many of his advisers counseled him against his position on the grounds that it would (be) politically catastrophic, that it would alienate the southern leadership and a lot of the southern electorate, and might well cost him re-election.”
Spottswood W. Robinson III (1916-1998)
After serving as a lawyer on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that argued the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, Robinson, a graduate of Howard University Law School and later its dean, was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, becoming the first Black judge to sit on that court.
As a lawyer, his colleague Jack Greenberg, a former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, described him in the New York Times as a “curious combination of a property lawyer . . . and a constitutional lawyer, who knew the great policies of the Constitution as they were expressed in the Constitution.” During his 23 years on Court of Appeals, 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 opposed her work on behalf of Brown v. Board of Ed of which she authored the original complaint in 1950.
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Motley, who would eventually be confirmed, was the first African American female District court judge. On the Southern District of New York, Motley distinguished herself in several cases regarding women’s rights. In Blank v. Sullivan & Crowell, a 1975 landmark gender discrimination class action against several of New York’s prestigious law firms, Motley was asked to recuse herself on the basis of her sex. In her rejection of the recusal, Motley wrote:
"[I]f background or sex or race of each judge were, by definition, sufficient grounds for removal, no judge on this court could hear this case, or many others, by virtue of the fact that all of them were attorneys, of a sex, often with a distinguished law firm or public service backgrounds."
A. Leon Higginbotham (1928-1998)
Serving for nearly 30 years as a Federal Judge, Higginbotham, who called himself a “survivor of segregation” was active in civil rights issues, acting as the Vice Chairman of the Kerner Commission in Lyndon Johnson’s administration in the aftermath of the urban riots during the 1960s.
In 1974, while a judge in the Eastern District, Higginbotham refused to recuse himself in a case regarding racial discrimination. “I concede that I am black,” Judge Higginbotham wrote in his opinion in Comm. of Pa. v. Local 542, Int'l Union of Operating Engineers. “I take rational pride in my heritage, just as most other ethnics take pride in theirs. However, that one is black does not mean, ipso facto, that he is anti-white; no more than being Jewish implies being anti-Catholic, or being Catholic implies being anti-Protestant. As do most blacks, I believe that the corridors of history in this country 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 a Detroit native, famously ruled in United States v. Sinclair that Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell had to disclose the transcripts of the wiretaps that he had authorized without first obtaining a search warrant. Known as the “Keith Case,” Sinclair was upheld in both the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The grandson of enslaved workers, Keith authored many First Amendment decisions, including Melton v. Young, where he ruled that public school officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee could suspend a student for wearing Confederate flag clothing without violating the First Amendment because the flag had led to disruptions of school activities.
In 2019, Keith was a Senior Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit when he died at the age of 96.
Amalya Lyle Kearse (1937-)
Nominated to the U.S. 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 v. Abrams, which made it harder to discriminate in jury selection on the basis of race.
Kearse also challenged the notion that all persons of the same color will view matters the same way. She wrote that these attitudes "limit artificially the opportunity of blacks for participation in our system of justice and perpetuate an invidious proposition of racial inferiority that has been outlawed in virtually every area of public affairs—in employment, in education, in property rights."
Kearse was considered for the U.S. Supreme Court by three presidents. She continues her work in the Second Circuit, where she has senior status, which means she hears a limited number of cases.
READ MORE: Black History Milestones: A Timeline