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Profile: Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was a participant or observer in the following events:

A federal court invalidates South Carolina’s effort to save its whites-only primary elections (see April 1, 1946). South Carolina attempted to remove federal court jurisdiction from its primaries, and save its discriminatory primary system, by repealing all of its primary laws. However, the court ruling in Elmore v. Rice invalidates the whites-only system. George Elmore, one of the plaintiffs in the case, is an African-American elector forbidden by South Carolina law from voting in the Democratic primary election. NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall is one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs. (ELMORE v. RICE 2010; American Civil Liberties Union 2012) Elmore and his family are persecuted by members of the Ku Klux Klan after the ruling. (South Carolina African American History Calendar 2007 pdf file)

One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom.One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. (Library of Congress 1994; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The Supreme Court rules 6-3 not to permanently enjoin the New York Times and other press organs from publishing articles derived from the Pentagon Papers (see June 26, 1971). Three justices, William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Thurgood Marshall, insist that the government can never suppress the publication of information no matter what the threat to national security; the other three in the majority, Potter Stewart, Byron White, and William Brennan, use a more moderate “common sense” standard that says, though the government can suppress publication of sensitive information under circumstances of war or national emergency, this case did not meet the criteria for such suppression. Chief Justice Warren Burger is joined by Harry Blackmun and John Harlan in dissenting; they believe that the president has the unrestrained authority to prevent confidential materials affecting foreign policy from being published. The Times’s lawyer says that the ruling will help ensure that a federal court will not issue a restraining order against a news outlet simply because the government is unhappy with the publication of a particular article. (Herda 1994)

Headline from the New York Times regarding the ‘Roe’ decision.Headline from the New York Times regarding the ‘Roe’ decision. [Source: RubeReality (.com)]The US Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, legalizes abortion on a federal level in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade. The majority opinion is written by Justice Harry Blackmun; he is joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices William O. Douglas, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Thurgood Marshall, and Lewis Powell. Justices Byron “Whizzer” White and William Rehnquist dissent from the opinion. Blackmun’s majority opinion finds that the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of personal liberty and previous decisions protecting privacy in family matters include a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. White’s dissent argues that the Court has “fashion[ed] and announce[d] a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invest[ed] that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes.” The decision does not make abortion freely available to women in any stage of pregnancy. It places the following constraints:
bullet No restrictions on availability are made during the first trimester (three months) of a woman’s pregnancy.
bullet Because of increased risks to a woman’s health during the second trimester, the state may regulate the abortion procedure only “in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.”
bullet In the third and final trimester, since the rate of viability (live birth) is markedly greater than in the first two trimesters, the state can restrict or even prohibit abortions as it chooses, “except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
Originally brought to challenge a Texas law prohibiting abortions, the decision disallows a host of state and federal restrictions on abortion, and sparks an enormous controversy over the moral, religious, and legal viability of abortion that continues well into the 21st century. (ROE v. WADE, 410 US 113 (1973) 1/22/1973; Mears and Franken 1/22/2003; National Abortion Federation 2010) In a related case, Roe v. Bolton, the Court strikes down restrictions on facilities that can be used to provide abortions. The ruling leads to the establishment of so-called “abortion clinics.” (CBS News 4/19/2007)

The Supreme Court, in the case of First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, rules 5-4 that corporations have the First Amendment right to make contributions in order to influence political processes. Writing for the majority, Justice Lewis Powell finds that under the recent Buckley ruling (see January 30, 1976), corporate political donations are protected speech. Powell’s opinion finds that a Massachusetts criminal statute prohibiting corporations from spending money for the purpose of “influencing or affecting” voters’ opinions is not legitimate. The split among the justices is unusual, with Powell, a conservative, being joined by two more conservatives, Chief Justice Warren Burger and Potter Stewart, and liberals Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens. The four dissenters are liberals William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, and conservatives Byron White and William Rehnquist. (FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF BOSTON v. BELLOTTI 2012; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Rehnquist’s standalone dissent advocates for far stricter controls on corporate spending in elections than most of the other justices’ dissents, with Rehnquist writing that such spending could “pose special dangers in the political sphere.” (Reclaim Democracy 4/26/1978; FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF BOSTON v. BELLOTTI 2012)

The US Supreme Court guts a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) by ruling that voters must prove racially discriminatory intent in order to prevail in litigation under the VRA. In the case of City of Mobile v. Bolden, the Court rules 6-3 that the previous standard of proving discriminatory results is no longer adequate. Disenfranchised voters must now prove intent, a far higher standard, before receiving redress. The case originates in Mobile, Alabama’s practice of electing city commissioners under an at-large voting scheme. No African-American had ever been elected to the commission, and a number of Mobile citizens challenged the constitutionality of the at-large scheme. The Court found that at-large schemes such as that employed by the city of Mobile only violate the Constitution if they deliberately serve to minimize or cancel out the voting potential of minorities. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the plurality, finds that the right to equal participation in the electoral process is aimed not for the protection of any political group. Moreover, he writes that the evidence fails to show that Mobile operates a voting system with the intent to discriminate. The conservative justices largely side with Stewart. The liberals are split. Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens concur with Stewart’s ruling for different reasons than those expressed by Stewart. Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Byron White dissent, with Brennan and White arguing that the burden of proof had been met, and Marshall arguing that the burden of proof should be on Mobile to show that it refused to modify its voting scheme despite the evidence of discrimination. (MOBILE v. BOLDEN, 446 US 55 (1980) 4/22/1980 pdf file; Casebriefs 2012; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The Supreme Court, in the case of Federal Election Commission v. NCPAC, rules that political action committees (PACs) can spend more than the $1,000 mandated by federal law (see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976). The Democratic Party and the FEC argued that large expenditures by the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) in 1975 violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which caps spending by independent political action committees in support of a publicly funded presidential candidate at $1,000. The Court rules 7-2 in favor of NCPAC, finding that the relevant section of FECA encroaches on the organization’s right to free speech (see January 30, 1976). Justice William Rehnquist writes the majority opinion, joined by fellow conservatives Chief Justice Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Lewis Powell, and liberals Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and William Brennan. Justices Byron White and Thurgood Marshall dissent from the majority. (Oyez (.org) 2012; Moneyocracy 2/2012)

The Supreme Court rules in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life that an anti-abortion organization can print flyers promoting “pro-life” candidates in the weeks before an election, and that the portion of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) that bars distribution of such materials to the general public restricts free speech. In September 1978, the Massachusetts Citizens For Life (MCFL) spent almost $10,000 printing flyers captioned “Everything You Need to Vote Pro-Life,” which included information about specific federal and state candidates’ positions on abortion rights, along with exhortations to “vote pro-life” and “No pro-life candidate can win in November without your vote in September.” The Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that MCFL’s expenditures violated FECA’s ban on corporate spending in connection with federal elections. A Massachusetts district court ruled against the FEC, finding that the flyer distribution “was uninvited by any candidate and uncoordinated with any campaign” and the flyers fell under the “newspaper exemption” of the law. Moreover, the court found, FECA’s restrictions infringed on MCFL’s freedom of speech (see January 30, 1976 and April 26, 1978). An appeals court reversed much of the district court’s decision, but agreed that the named provision of FECA violated MCFL’s free speech rights. The FEC appealed to the Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the Court affirms that FECA’s prohibition on corporate expenditures is unconstitutional as applied to independent expenditures made by a narrowly defined type of nonprofit corporation such as MCFL. The Court writes that few organizations will be impacted by its decision. The majority opinion is written by Justice William Brennan, a Court liberal, and joined by liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservatives Lewis Powell, Antonin Scalia, and (in part) by Sandra Day O’Connor. Court conservatives William Rehnquist and Byron White, joined by liberals Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, dissent with the majority, saying that the majority ruling gives “a vague and barely adumbrated exception [to the law] certain to result in confusion and costly litigation.” (Federal Election Commission 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)

The US Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, gives states significant rights to regulate or constrain the availability of abortions. The ruling splits the Court in a 5-4 vote. The case allows states to restrict the use of public money, medical personnel, or facilities in performing abortions. It upholds a Missouri law that restricts the use of state funds, facilities, and employees in performing, counseling, or assisting with abortions. It adds restrictions to rights previously thought upheld and granted by the Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (see January 22, 1973). The Missouri law holds that “the life of each human being begins at conception” and “unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being,” assumptions specifically not granted under federal laws and court decisions. The opinion is written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and joined by Justices Byron “Whizzer” White and Anthony Kennedy. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia form the majority vote with concurrent opinions; in his opinion, Scalia lambasts the other justices for not overturning Roe in its entirety. Justice Harry Blackmun joins Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens in dissenting from the majority verdict. Blackmun writes that the decision can be interpreted to overturn Roe entirely, and writes, “I fear for the future… a chill wind blows.” (Oyez 1989; Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (No. 88-605) 7/3/1989; FindLaw 7/3/1989; CBS News 4/19/2007)

When Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first and only African-American to serve on the Court, announces his retirement, the Bush administration is ready with a far more conservative replacement. President Bush himself is already under fire for previously naming a moderate, David Souter, to the Court, and Bush is determined to give his conservative base someone they can back. Although Bush had wanted to nominate an appropriately conservative Hispanic, his eventual nomination is Clarence Thomas, who is completing his first year as a judge on the DC Court of Appeals. Thomas has two qualifications that Bush officials want: like Marshall, he is African-American; unlike Marshall, he is as conservative a jurist as Antonin Scalia (see September 26, 1986) or Robert Bork (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Two of former President Reagan’s closest legal advisers, C. Boyden Gray and Lee Liberman (a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society), privately call Thomas “the black Bork.” Bush calls Thomas “the most qualified man in the country” for the position. (Dowd 7/2/1991; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) During the July 2 press conference to announce Thomas’s nomination, Bush says: “I don’t feel he’s a quota. I expressed my respect for the ground that Mr. Justice Marshall plowed, but I don’t feel there should be a black seat on the Court or an ethnic seat on the Court.” For his part, Thomas extols his upbringing as a desperately poor child in Georgia, crediting his grandmother and the nuns who taught him in Catholic schools as particular influences on his life and values. Republican senator Orrin Hatch says that opposing Thomas will be difficult: “Anybody who takes him on in the area of civil rights is taking on the grandson of a sharecropper.” (Dowd 7/2/1991) However, the non-partisan American Bar Association’s recommendation panel splits on whether Thomas is qualified or not, the first time since 1969 the ABA has failed to unanimously recommend a nominee. Twelve panelists find Thomas “qualified,” two find him “not qualified,” and none find him “well qualified.” One senior Congressional aide calls the assessment of Thomas “the equivalent of middling.” (Lewis 8/28/1991; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) In 2007, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write, “For the president to send a nominee to the Supreme Court with anything less than a uniformly well-qualified rating is irresponsible, but such decisions have become part of the politicization of the judiciary.” Thomas, himself a beneficiary of the nation’s affirmative action programs, opposes them, once calling them “social engineering;” he has no interest in civil rights legislation, instead insisting that the Constitution should be “color-blind” and the courts should stay out of such matters. Civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental groups are, in Dean’s words, “terrified” of Thomas’s nomination. To overcome these obstacles, the Bush administration decides on a strategy Dean calls “crude but effective… us[ing] Thomas’s color as a wedge with the civil rights community, because he would pick up some blacks’ support notwithstanding his dismal record in protecting their civil rights. (Dowd 7/2/1991; Dean 2007, pp. 146-153) The nomination of an African-American quells some of the planned resistance to a conservative nominee promised by a number of civil rights organizations. (Dowd 7/2/1991) Three months later, Thomas will be named to the court after a bitterly contentious brace of confirmation hearings (see October 13, 1991).


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