THE LAST WORD: Judge Higginbotham's Legal Legacy
The passing of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., one of the most distinguished African American jurists of this century, has left a gaping void in the leadership of our community that will be difficult to fill. I say this because, even though as a lawyer and judge he dealt with many civil matters, nevertheless, the deep intensity of his commitment to social justice and its expression in his pursuit of equal rights for Blacks was nothing short of legendary.
Indeed, at the time Thurgood Marshall resigned from the Supreme Court on June 27, 1991, there was considerable hope that someone in the Thurgood Marshall tradition would be chosen to fill that vacancy someone whose legal qualifications were outstanding, whose record of service to the cause of equal justice was deep, and whose views were in the sync with the Black community. Thus, Leon Higginbotham's name was prominently tossed up, along with others who also held the values of the civil rights movement close.
Higginbotham was a natural to be considered for the Court and not only because he was a graduate of Yale law. From the time he was named to the federal bench in 1964 at the age of 36, to 1989 when he was elevated to Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, he had put together an outstanding record of achievement.
So, it was with utter shock and dismay that one witnessed the cruel spectacle of the elevation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court by the right wing conservative element of the Republican Party. With this appointment, the Thurgood Marshall tradition of commitment to civil rights was broken. A Black lawyer who acts as a proxy to the White conservative movement was installed and a voice for the majority of the Black community on the highest court of the land was vitiated. This was a step that has profoundly wounded Black America.
One of the promises of our participation in the political system through the civil rights movement was that our view would be fairly reflected in the political system through men and women who respected that tradition and that legacy. The respect for this legacy is due because it was purchased at the price of personal and collective insult and injury that was meted out solely because of race.
Leon Higginbotham was of the generation that experienced such insults directly. He often spoke of the difficulties that he faced while an undergraduate at Purdue University, as a student at Yale law, trying to get a job as a lawyer, in the practice of law -- in short, at every step of his development. …