Hastie, William Henry (1904–1976)

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William Henry Hastie was the first black federal judge. He studied law at Harvard Law School, where he was elected to the Harvard Law Review. After graduation in 1930 he pursued a career that included service to the national government, the Howard Law School, and the NAACP.

Hastie in 1939 took the chair of that civil rights organization's National Legal Committee, a post he used to influence the course of civil rights litigation. He argued successfully with thurgood marshall in smith v. all-wright (1941) that a Texas all-white primary election law violated the Fifteenth Amendment. He also joined with Marshall five years later in arguing morgan v. virginia. They persuaded the Court that a Virginia law imposing segregation on interstate buses unconstitutionally burdened the uniform flow of commerce. Smith and Morgan were critical victories in the NAACP's attack on the South's dual system of race relations: the former leveled a barrier to black voting; the latter marked the first victory in a transportation case.

Following appointment as judge of the Third Circuit in 1949, Hastie had few judicial opportunities to advance the cause of civil rights. Scarcely two dozen of his 486 opinions dealt with civil rights, and these reveal a commitment to constitutional law rooted in principle and judicial restraint. In Lynch v. Torquato (1965) Hastie declined to expand the state action theories he had advanced in Smith. He held that the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment did not embrace the management of the internal affairs of the Democratic party. In an article he spurned affirmative action programs that used "race alone as a determinant of eligibility or qualification."

William Hastie stood in the front rank of civil rights leaders. Notably, a strong sense of Madisonian constitutionalism balanced his commitment to legal activism.

Kermit L. Hall


Rusch, Jonathon J. 1978 William H. Hastie and the Vindication of Civil Rights. Howard Law Journal 21:749–820.

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Hastie, William Henry (1904–1976)

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