U.S. Appeals Court Judges: From Protest to Power; 11 Blacks Sit on the Nation's Second-Highest Judicial Reviewing Authority

Article excerpt


TWENTY-FIVE years ago, many of them were activists in the civil rights struggle. They were crusading young attorneys, using their legal acumen to help pry open doors that had for too long remained shut to Black Americans. Little did they realize that the civil rights revolution would open the gilded doors of the judiciary and make it possible for them to occupy seats on the second-highest court in the nation.

Yet today, 11 Blacks sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals, the reviewing body that ranks just below the U.S. Supreme court in judicial authority. They are among the 152 judges stationed throughout the country in 12 federal jurisdictions called circuits. They hear cases elevated on appeal from federal district courts. They also review decisions involving federal administrative agencies such as the Security and Exchange Commission and the National Labor Relations Board.

The weight of their decisions is great, for it is usually from a U.S. Court of appeals that the U.S. Supreme Court selects the few cases that it reviews. Since the Supreme Court tends only to rule on those cases that pose an important legal question, a U.S. Court of Appeals is the final arbiter in a great many legal disputes. "For most people, we are the court of last resort," says Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, 3rd Circuit, Philadelphia, who is one of the longest-tenured Black federal judges in the country.

The U.S. Court of Appeals also has gained significance as a proving ground for prospective U.S. Supreme Court justices. It is from the ranks of the federal appeals court that many presidents select nominees for the nation's highest court when vacancies arise. …