Justice Thurgood Marshall's Legacy in American Law

By Ogletree, Charles J., Jr. | The New Crisis, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

Justice Thurgood Marshall's Legacy in American Law


Ogletree, Charles J., Jr., The New Crisis


A superb student, extraordinary lawyer, and distinguished jurist, Thurgood Marshall played an instrumental role in American legal jurisprudence, producing seminal decisions in a variety of legal fields and leaving a legacy of excellence few individuals can follow.

While much has been written about the late associate justice of the Supreme Court (two recent books come to mind: Juan Williams' Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary and Howard Ball's A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America), few publications have captured the essence and magnitude of Marshall's achievements. Most people are familiar with Justice Marshall's contribution to civil rights, his work on the 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, and his relentless pursuit of equal protection guarantees, but few remember the breadth of his legal achievements and his larger social contributions.

As a student, Marshall excelled in his studies, ranking in the top of his class at Harvard Law School. As a lawyer, Marshall won 29 out of 32 cases he argued. And as a jurist, Marshall advanced the procedural and substantive criminal justice protections that all Americans enjoy today. Even the current Supreme Court justices, particularly Justice O'Connor, remark about the continuing influence Marshall still has on the Court.

In addition, though many people assume that Justice Marshall wrote only "liberal opinions" or those that were pro-defendant, his criminal justice legacy is much broader and much more diverse than any ideological limitations. Marshall's decisions are rooted in an insightful reality of what occurs during warrantless searches, at the time of jailhouse interrogations, or when confessions are coerced or provided without adequate counsel. Marshall had a keen eye to evaluate the jury selection process and the procedures prosecutors undertake to lock up defendants without an adequate assessment of the evidence and the facts.

At times Justice Marshall ruled for the government, arguing that the state has a legitimate police power interest when warrant requirements are met or when authorities have sufficient "probable cause." Other times the Justice supported the accused, focusing on the risks of using formal legal categories ("search incident to a lawful arrest," "standing to sue," and "deference to the judgment of police officers") and arguing that a strict approach to these categories often strips away necessary constitutional protections. There was no limit to Marshall's insight and understanding indeed, few justices can claim similar contributions.

One area to which Justice Marshall contributed greatly was death penalty jurisprudence. His reasoning reflected a greater concern about the procedural and substantive fairness in our criminal system. His opinions, especially as highlighted in the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, which invalidated all state capital punishment statutes, often focused on historical data and empirical research, which demonstrated that execution policies were an excessive and unnecessary punishment. States used such mechanisms, Marshall argued, more for retribution and revenge and not for after engaging in careful thought and consideration. Even today, as current sociological data reveal that black men are more likely to be given death sentences as compared to white men convicted of similar crimes, Justice Marshall's insights ring all the more true.

Justice Marshall also contributed substantially to the laws embodying procedural safeguards for speedy, fair, and legitimate trials. During Justice Marshall's early years (and continuing too often today), certain courts were notorious about the way they tried and convicted defendants. There was little attention to fair proceedings or to the overall quality of defense counsel. But through the majority opinions he wrote and the dissenting statements he announced, Justice Marshall reaffirmed the many constitutional protections necessary for a truly just trial, arguing that the State should ensure that all defendants have competent defense attorneys who represent their clients' interests over the political agendas and concerns of the prosecution. …

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