Wednesday, July 2, 2008

TDIH: One Hundred Years

One hundred years ago today, William Marshall welcomed into the world a son, Thoroughgood. One hundred years later, Thurgood Marshall would be remembered as one of the most important jurists of American history. His personal successes would be forever synonymous with the great successes in civil rights in the 1960s. His appointment to the United States Supreme Court as the first African American to serve on that esteemed bench would be one of only a handful of successes of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. His legacy is one any student of U.S. History can marvel at and will for many decades to come.

Marshall's most famous case as a practicing attorney prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court was the now famous and oft studied Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Marshall practiced before the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions, but it would be his success with Brown as chief counsel for the NAACP that would symbolize his skill and dedication to the rule of law.

One hot summer day after my freshman year of college, at a time when I was struggling to figure out where my academic interests actually lie, I sat down and read the majority opinion in Brown (penned by Chief Justice Earl Warren) and I was so moved by it that I cried. Cried over an opinion given by the Court some fifty years earlier.

To this day I am amazed by the partisan twists in history that resulted in the unlikely pairing of Justices Brennan, an appointee of Eisenhower, and Marshall; the progressive stance of Chief Justice Earl Warren, despite the objection and disappointment of the man who appointed him (also Eisenhower); and, more relevant today, the often liberal tendencies of President Ford's only appointee, the bow tie-wearing Justice John Paul Stevens.

When the decision came down from the Court this past week in the District of Columbia v Heller case, I read, with almost as much concern as I had with the majority opinion in Brown, the dissenting opinion in Heller penned by Justice Stevens. I read Brown knowing that it is one of the most important decisions of the high court in the history of our nation and I read Heller knowing that generations of Americans that will come after me will learn that decision in their high school government classes as I learned Brown. I have thought a great deal about the courage and conscience of Justice Thurgood Marshall in the past week, never escaping the belief that our justice system today would be well served to have more jurists like Marshall.

For me personally, the concurrent opinion of he and the majority in Furman v Georgia stands out as one of his most solid decisions. That 5-4 vote was nearly as politically motivated, through the appointment process, as the 5-4 decisions we've become accustomed to of late. Undoubtedly, Marshall's opinions have indirect relevance in all of our every day lives. We may know his positions inside and out or we may simply know of them--noting their importance in the overall structure of our judicial system. However, it is Justice Marshall's position on Cottage Savings Association v Commissioner of Internal Revenue that I have become most aware of. The lingering consequences of income taxes following the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s is well addressed in the papers of Idaho's own former Congressman Stallings and I have spent many an hour trying to understand the cost and outcome of that unstable period of our economic history. Of all the decisions Marshall associated himself with, this decision was not the most memorable nor the most consequential, but it is the only decision that if for a moment made me feel some attachment to one of American's greatest jurists.

The legacy of Thurgood Marshall speaks to many people across the American spectrum. Some of us in awe at what he accomplished as an African-American man in a country that had just passed the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some of us in awe at the opinions he penned, his writing brilliant, his understanding of the law superb. Some of us simply remain in awe that a man from such humble beginnings in Baltimore, Maryland, could be so influenced by an early reading of the Constitution that he devoted his life to the practice and observance of law.
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-Please visit this site for another perspective on the Thurgood Marshall bicentennial.
-The posted image is available from the United States Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID cph.3b07878

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