Robinson, Spottswood W. III 1916–1998
Spottswood W. Robinson, III 1916–1998
Judge, lawyer, educator
In his long and varied career, Spottswood W. Robinson III served as an educator, a lawyer, and a judge on one of the highest appellate courts in the United States. However, he is most remembered as the attorney who argued the case of Brown v. Board of Education before the US Supreme Court in 1954. The Court’s historic ruling in that case led to the desegregation of public schools throughout the nation.
After the Brown case, Robinson went on to become dean of the law school at his alma mater, Howard University. He was the first African American to serve as a judge of the US District Court in Washington. Robinson was also the first African American to be named a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. This court is the most important appeals court in the country, and is sometimes called the nation’s second most influential court after the US Supreme Court. Robinson was Chief Judge of this court from 1981 until 1986. Jack Greenberg, an expert on civil rights law who worked with Robinson on the Brown case, remarked in Robinson’s obituary in the New York Times that “He (Robinson) was a curious combination of a property lawyer, who knew the ins and outs of property law, and a constitutional lawyer, who knew the great policies of the Constitution as they were expressed in the Fourteenth Amendment.”
A few days after his death, the Washington Post ran an editorial praising Robinson for his contribution to the advancement of civil rights in the United States. “Because of the research and courtroom work of Judge Robinson and a handful of lawyers and students of his era, countless Americans today attend schools, ride buses, buy homes, use state parks, and enjoy the protection of the law without regard to their race or color. It was not always so for America.”
Robinson was born on July 26, 1916, in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of Spottswood Robinson Jr., a lawyer, and his wife, Inez C. Robinson. As a young man, Robinson attended public schools in Richmond, which were segregated at the time, and graduated from Arm-strong High School in 1932. Following high school, he studied at Richmond’s Virginia Union University from 1932 until 1934 and from 1935 until 1936. Instead of completing work on his bachelor’s degree, however, Robinson
At a Glance …
Born Spottswood W. Robinson III, July 26, 1916, Richmond, VA; died October 11, 1998; son of Spottswood Robinson, Jr., and Inez (Clements) Robinson; married Marian Bernice Witkerson, Mar.5, 1936; children: Spottswood W. IV, Nina Edumtlm: Virginia Union University, Richmond, 1932–34 1935–36; Howard University School of Law, Washington, DC, LLB, magna cum laude, 1939. Religion: Episcopalian.
Career: Teaching fellow, Howard University, 1939–48; Instructor, 1941–43; Assistant professor, 1943–46; Associate professor, 1945–48; Dean, Howard University Law School, 1960–63. Legal representative, Virginia NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1948–50; Legal representative for Southwest Regional Council, NAACP, 1951–40; Member, US Commission on Civil Rights, 1961–63. Judge, US District Court, Washington, DC, 1964–66; US Court of Appeals, Washington, DC, 1966–92; Chief judge, US Court of Appeals, 1981–86.
Selected awards: Honorary degrees from Howard University, Georgetown University, New York Law School.
entered Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.
According to the Washington Post, Robinson once said of Howard University’s law school, “The turning point of my life was the day I put my foot in there.” During his years at Howard, Robinson was strongly influenced by Charles Hamilton Houston, a pioneering African American lawyer who encouraged law students to fight for civil rights. “One of the things that was drilled into my head was …’This legal education that you’re getting is not just for you, it was for everybody. So when you leave here, you want to put it to good use, ’” Robinson was quoted as saying in Jet. Robinson studied incessantly in law school, developing a passion for detailed research that later would be indispensable in documenting arguments for civil rights cases. He graduated magna cum laude in 1939, having earned the highest grade point average in the school’s history.
After graduation, Robinson was offered a teaching fellow ship in law at Howard. He remained at the school for the next eight years, advancing steadily through the academic ranks. He became an instructor in 1941, an assistant professor in 1943, and an associate professor in 1945. He taught courses on a range of subjects, including bills and notes, business units, civil rights, constitutional law, real property, and torts. Meanwhile, having been admitted to the Virginia bar in 1943, Robinson began to practice law in Richmond. During the 1940s, Robinson moved into the front lines of the emerging struggle for civil rights and soon rose to national prominence. He was “one of just a very small handful of practicing lawyers who handled civil rights cases in the late forties and early fifties in Virginia,” Jack Greenberg remarked in the New York Times.
In 1947, Robinson took a leave of absence from Howard University. The following year, he resigned from the faculty in order to take a position as an attorney for the legal defense and educational fund of Virginia’s NAACP. This fund provided legal assistance for needy African Americans whose civil rights had been violated. Working with his former mentor, Charles Houston, Robinson helped to win a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed restrictive covenants banning the sale of real estate to African Americans.
While Robinson would become famous for his civil rights victories, he also experienced significant losses. From 1949 to 1951, he was a member of an NAACP legal team that defended the Martinsville Seven, a group of African American men accused of sexually assaulting a woman in Martinsville, Virginia. Despite Robinson’s valiant efforts, the men were eventually executed.
In 1951 Robinson was appointed southeast regional counsel for the NAACP fund, a job that required him to travel all over Virginia and the South. Years later, he recalled that he always had to pack a lunch for those trips because many southern restaurants refused to serve African Americans. “A Negro lawyer practicing in some of the outlying country courts had a hard time finding any place to eat,” he was quoted as saying in his obituary in the Washington Post.
In his first year as southeast regional counsel, Robinson represented an African American student in Virginia’s Prince Edward County. The student claimed that, at the high school for African American students, the textbooks, facilities, and buses were vastly inferior to what was available at schools for white students. Robinson filed suit on behalf of 100 parents of 450 students at Moton High School, convinced that their only chance of success lay in having the case heard by the US Supreme Court. The lawsuit was eventually combined with the Brown v. Board of Education case. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Robinson’s contribution to Brown v. Board of Education was to argue the constitutional history of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Robinson’s view, the amendment called for equality for all people, regardless of race. African Americans, he argued, were denied equality because they attended segregated schools. As Robinson presented his arguments in front of the Supreme Court, “he was very calm and just absolutely brimming with facts and information and legal doctrine,” recalled Greenberg in the New York Times. The Supreme Court, in an historic decision, agreed with Robinson and struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had prevailed in public education throughout the South.
Robinson argued many other civil rights cases, winning rulings that desegregated interstate buses and state parks. In an effort to protect segregation, the state of Virginia tried to restrict the NAACP’s activities. A series of laws were passed that prohibited the solicitation or contribution of funds to pay for litigation of race-based court cases. In response, Robinson filed suit and a federal court declared the laws to be unconstitutional in 1956.
In 1960, Robinson gave up his law practice to become dean of Howard’s law school, a position he held until 1963. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy named Robinson to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a six-member bipartisan commission charged with studying civil rights violations in the United States. Although several Southern senators protested Robinson’s nomination because of his activist background, he was confirmed by a vote of 73 to 17. During the 1960s, the commission focused attention on racial discrimination within labor unions and the National Guard, as well as police brutality directed against African Americans.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Robinson to a federal judgeship. Two years later, he became the first African American to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1992. From 1981 until 1986, Robinson was Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.
As a judge, Robinson was known for his long, scholarly opinions, which often featured excessive numbers of footnotes—a subject of good-natured teasing from his former clerks, who had to painstakingly research each one. “I was taught to approach everything and get it done conscientiously and thoroughly,” he remarked to the Washington Post. “I really don’t know of any other way to deal with it. It is just as easy to do it the right way as any other way.”
In 1989, after 23 years on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, Robinson announced his retirement. This left an unprecedented three vacancies on the court. One vacancy was created by the resignation of Robert H. Bork, an unsuccessful nominee for the Supreme Court, and the other by the departure of Kenneth W. Starr, who became solicitor general. Many commentators and activists expressed concern that the court was becoming too conservative because older, more liberal judges such as Robinson were retiring, and the vacancies were being filled by Republican appointees. Robinson “was the court’s last link to the pro-civil rights administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson,” Tracy Thompson and Saundra Torry wrote in the Washington Post. At an event preceding his retirement, Chief Judge Patricia M. Wald praised Robinson as “the quintessential judge—ultimately fair to all sides, intimately knowledgeable… unwilling to cut any corners or slough over any uncomfortable facts or law.”
For the next three years, Robinson kept an office at the U.S. Courthouse, and continued to hear cases on a reduced workload. In 1992, he took full retirement and returned home to Richmond, Virginia. Robinson died on October 11, 1998 at his home in Richmond. He had been in failing health for years and his death was attributed to a heart attack. Following Robinson’s death, the editorial board of the Washington Post praised him as a man who helped to create a “much fairer and more just legal and social structure than the one he was born into 82 years ago. He had a large hand in making it this way.”
Ebony Success Library, Southwestern Co., 1973.
Jet, November 2, 1998, p. 57.
Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1998, p. A18.
New York Times, July 28, 1961, p. 9; October 13, 1998.
Washington Post, August 12, 1989, p. A8; October 13, 1998, p. B6; October 17, 1998, p. A20.
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