Judges with Clout


11 jurists sit on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals

THEY are among the final arbiters of justice in America. They are distinguished jurists who bring to the bench a wealth of knowledge accumulated through noteworthy private practice, extraordinary legal research, or activism on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. Though their names and faces may not be familiar, the nine Black men and two Black women who are among the 153 judges occupying seats on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals--the second highest court in the nation--are important cogs in the American justice system. They are, indeed, judges with clout.

The U.S. Court of Appeals ranks just below the Supreme Court in authority. It is from the federal appeals court, in fact, that many presidents select nominees to the Supreme Court. William Henry Hastie III, an appointee of President Harry Truman, was the first Black judge to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals (1950-1971). Of the 11 Blacks who currently sit on the court, Harry T. Edwards of the District of Columbia Circuit is the only chief judge, the arbiter who sets the court's administrative agenda. Theodore McMillian of the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, a 1978 appointee of President Jimmy Carter, has the most seniority of the court's active Black judges. Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit in Detroit, one of the three Black appeals court judges who have opted for "senior" or semi-active status, has been on the federal bench the longest. He was appointed to the federal district court by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 and elevated to the appeals court by President Carter 10 years later.

In all, Carter appointees account for six of the 11 Blacks currently on the federal appeals court. Bill Clinton appointed five of the current judges. Stationed throughout the country in 12 multistate jurisdictions called circuits, the judges hear cases elevated on appeal from federal district courts. Cases that pose important legal questions may be elevated from the U.S. Appeals Court to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that is rare. In most instances, the federal appeals court is the last stop on the journey to justice.

With so much at stake, many say maintaining minority representation on the court is vital. "We must ensure that the judiciary is an accurate reflection of society," says Judge Damon Keith. "Then we can positively assert that we have administered justice fairly."

Judge Harry T. Edwards Chief Judge, District of Columbia Circuit

Judge Edwards currently is the only chief judge among the 11 Blacks on the U.S. Court of Appeals. He was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and became chief judge in 1994. A graduate of Columbia University and the University of Michigan Law School, Edwards, 58, was a tenured professor at the University of Michigan and Harvard law schools prior to joining the federal judiciary.

Judge Amalya L. Kearse Second Circuit, New York

Judge Kearse was the first Black woman named to the U.S. Court of Appeals and the first woman named to the court in New York. She received her bachelor's degree from Wellesley College and earned her law degree cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School. She was a partner in the Wall Street firm of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed before being appointed to the appeals court in 1979 by President Carter.

William Henry Hastie III First Black Court Of Appeals Judge

Judge Hastie (1904-1976) was the first African-American to sit on the U.S, Circuit Court of Appeals. Nominated by President Harry S. Truman in 1949, he served on the court from 1950 to 1971. Hastie graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, and earned a law degree from Harvard, where he was the second African-American to become editor of the Harvard Law Review. Upon graduation, he accepted a position as a professor at the Howard University Law School. Hastie was the first Black federal judge in the Virgin Islands (1937-1939), a post he resigned to became dean of the Howard University Law School. …

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