Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, was born today in 1908. His birthday seems especially relevant this year due to the Kagan Confirmation Hearings where Senate Republicans seem to want to use Kagan’s experience working with him against her. Why? They claim Marshall used his judicial duties for activism. Justice Sotomayor also received accusations of being a judicial activist.
These accusations seem slightly ridiculous since Supreme Court rulings inherently create change due to the particular justices’ interpretations of the Constitution.The Supreme Court, as one of the three branches of government, also has a role to play in shaping our understanding of the law and therefore the biases of our justices shape their opinion and create what we know as judicial activism.
With that out of the way, let’s take a moment to review Marshall’s historical career in law. Marshall received his law degree from Howard University of Law in 1933. Soon after, he began practicing law for the NAACP. He worked with the organization for nearly 30 years, overturning Jim Crow laws and making great strides in Civil Rights. Most famously, he worked on the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, Kansas. The ruling overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson case that had allowed for “separate but equal.” In Brown, the court found that separate is inherently unequal (something I fear is being forgotten today).
Marshall continued his impressive law career by serving on U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1961-1965, and as the first African American Solicitor General from 1965-1967. In 1967, LBJ nominated Marshall as a Supreme Court justice. Appointed with a vote of 69-11, Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court justice, serving until 1991. There Marshall regularly supported abortion and opposed the death penalty. Marshall also supported worker and union rights in his voting record.
In 1993, Marshall died of heart failure. Since his death, he has not been remembered as a judicial activist but as a man who fought for civil rights (with civil rights prizes given in his name) and as a man who tirelessly served the nation.