On the Matter of Race, Law and the American Way: Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Continues His Appeal for Social Justice

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On the Matter of Race, Law and the American Way: Judge A. Leon. Higginbotham, Jr. Continues His Appeal for Social Justice

B. Denise Hawkins SENIOR WRITER

As a young man growing up in Trenton, NJ, former federal court Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. experienced first-hand the unequal application of the law and learned early that skin color can make the difference between acceptance and denial.

But it was not until he entered Purdue University at the age of 16 that he began trying the system by challenging the university's racially biased housing policy. He lost that case, but not his desire for justice.

The son of a domestic worker and a laborer who extolled virtues of education, Higginbotham has gone on to become one of the nation's leading legal scholars. In his award-winning book, In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, he reveals the motivation for his scholarship: "I became intensely eager to acquaint myself with...the lessons of racial history, to ascertain to what extent the law itself had created the mores of racial repression."

The seemingly hopeless and tenuous issue of race has been a constant for Higginbotham, but it has not left him bitter or even hopeless. His sense of outrage has instead been controlled and in several instances channeled into legal writing. One has only to read his celebrated "An Open Letter to Clarence Thomas From a Federal Judicial Colleague," to get a glimpse of his style.

Last year, he stepped down from the bench as senior circuit court judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after 29 years. He was the longest serving active federal judge.

He is currently of counsel to Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

At a time when many people his age are enjoying their retirement, Higginbotham is returning to the classroom -- Harvard -- as a full professor, after having taught and lectured at some of the nation's most prestigious institutions -- Yale, Stanford, New York University, the University of Michigan, the University of Hawaii, the University of Pennsylvania as well as Harvard University.

While you were on the bench, you maintained a hectic schedule that included legal writing and teaching. Why, at this stage in your career, have you chosen to return to the classroom full-time?

I enjoy intellectual inquiries that reveal why certain complex problems exist, and their origin. The academic community gives one the rare luxury for intense inquiry and insightful reflection on serious problems. If done thoughtfully, one can pursue and articulate long-term solutions that will make a systematic difference. I left the bench and joined academia because I believe that, in the long run, I will be able to focus more on identifying and implementing viable solutions.

More important, all law students should understand the history of the American legal process for at least three centuries. Without historical insight, it becomes difficult to evaluate the alternatives that the legal process could have or should have. Secondly, I would want them to have a sense of caring and mission to aid the downtrodden and the powerless. They must seek to implement Martin Luther King, Jr's statement that we must "have the temerity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their body, education for the minds, and dignity for their spirits." Third, they should always pursue excellence and maintain ethical conduct.

You have been contemplating teaching at Harvard, where your contemporary Derrick Bell left his tenured position to protest the absence of tenured Black women on the law faculty. Did you consider teaching at a historically Black law school?

I will not be teaching primarily at Harvard Law School. My full professorship will be at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, but every third semester, I will teach one course at the law school. I think there is a partial distortion of information about Harvard Law School. …

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