The retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall will leave the Supreme Court without its most ardent and unwavering champion of the underdog, of minorities, of the poor and the helpless, the hopeless and the friendless.
"It's a whole new court now," said David Bogen, a constitutional law professor at the University of Maryland law school. "With [former Justice William] Brennan and Marshall gone the liberal heart has been cut out."
The Baltimore-born Marshall was the last, often embattled, survivor of the liberal majority of the Warren Court. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him in June 13, 1967. He was the first black on the court. No black American has ever held a higher office in the government of the United States.
"He was a towering figure," Bogen said.
Marshall's impact on the United States was assured before he joined the court, said Walter Camiat, a Washington labor lawyer who was a law clerk with the justice during the court's 1984-85 term.
"He had had a career that had changed the nature of American society," Camiat said. "His whole career was dedicated to civil rights. He was the head of the whole legal movement that led to Brown vs. Board of Education."
Brown vs. Board of Education was the Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation decision that reversed the separate-but-equal doctrine that had sanctioned racial discrimination since the 19th century. Marshall was general counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and he argued the case before the court.
"Brown vs. Board of Education was the culmination of decadeof litigation," Camiat said.
Few justices have had anything like his experience as a lawyer before the court. Marshall argued 32 Supreme Court cases -- and won 29 of them. He fought many more civil rights cases in lesser courts all over the country, often in Maryland.
He supervised preparation of desegregation cases at the University of Maryland graduate schools and in public schools in various Maryland counties. He would then argue them in court.
He often lost in the state courts. He expected to. But he'd win in the Supreme Court.
And Marshall alone among the justices could say he had defended a man charged with murder, observed Juan Williams, the author of the civil rights chronicle "Eyes on the Prize," in a magazine profile.
Typically, Marshall left behind a searing dissent in a death penalty case yesterday as he announced he was leaving the court.
The court had overruled two of its own precedents to say that victim impact statements and descriptions of the victim's character could be admitted as evidence in arguing a defendant should be sentenced to death.
The 6-3 majority, Marshall said, dispatched precedents "to their graves." The court had only recently held that victim impact statements violated Eighth Amendment provisions against cruel and unusual punishment. Such evidence might sway juries to death sentences based on the victim's suffering rather than
the defendant's guilt, the court had said.
"Neither the law nor the facts [of the precedents] underwent any change," Marshall wrote in his dissent. "Only the personnel of this court did. . . .
"The majority today sends a clear signal that scores of established constitutional liberties are now ripe for reconsideration." he said. "Cast aside today are those condemned to face society's ultimate penalty. Tomorrow's victims may be minorities, women or the indigent."
The majority, he wrote, will squander the authority and legitimacy of the court "as a protector of the powerless.
The latter were words he used frequently in the last decade as he saw the liberal majority of his early years on the court eroded by appointments of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Now that Brennan is gone and Marshall is leaving, constitutional scholars note that the "liberals" left on the court are Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, named by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, respectively.
Marshall had based his own longstanding and unwavering opposition to the death penalty on those very Eighth Amendment prohibitions he was defending yesterday. He had frequently been a solitary dissenter in death penalty cases. Before Brennan left the court last year, they often shared dissent.
He never strayed from a position come hell or high water," said Judge John R. Hargrove, one of two black judges on the U.S. district court in Baltimore. When he was a young lawyer in the 1950s, Hargrove worked on NAACP cases supervised by Marshall.
"He dissented because he honestly believed in his position," Hargrove said.
Camiat, Marshall's former law clerk, said, "He felt he was somebody that the underdog, the poor, the common people could rely on to make sure the humanity of things didn't get lost. He wanted his jurisprudence to be based on the real lives of the people involved.
"He certainly felt disappointment at the direction the court was going and that there was less and less sensitivity toward the underdogs in society, toward victims of injustice."
Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said Marshall infused meaning into the motto carved over the portico of the Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill: "Equal Justice Under the Law."
"I have profound respect for his career," Sarbanes said. "He's been a powerful force in the development of the law and therefore a powerful force in the development of American society."
Parren J. Mitchell, the former Baltimore congressman, said, "Thurgood went into court time and time again with a handful of NAACP lawyers against batteries of state and city attorneys, chipping away at discrimination with one principle: Equal protection of the law.
"That was his contribution and he made that our weapon, an offensive weapon."
Parren Mitchell is the younger brother of the late Clarence Mitchell Jr., longtime NAACP lobbyist in Washington and Marshall's colleague. Clarence Mitchell pushed for civil rights legislation while Marshall fought the legal battles.
"Thurgood Marshall was the most remarkable man this nation has seen in many, many generations," Parren Mitchell said. "He believed in the law. And he believed the law was the instrument with which we could achieve a truly democratic society."
Marshall was born in Baltimore in 1908, when the city was rigorously and uncompromisingly segregated. The only difference between Baltimore and the Deep South, he'd say, was that the trolley cars weren't segregated.
"Everything else was," he told Juan Williams.
He grew up in a nice house on Druid Hill Avenue. His mother was a kindergarten teacher, his father steward at the Gibson Island Club, among other things.
Marshall's interest in civil rights was sparked at Lincoln University, near Oxford, Pa., then a school for bright, young black men -- with an all-white faculty. His classmates included Langston Hughes, the poet, Cab Calloway, the entertainer, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, who would become president of Nigeria. They voted tointegrate the faculty.
He graduated in 1930 with a humanities degree and a determination to be a lawyer. He was rejected by the University of Maryland law school because he was black. Instead, he went to Howard University law school in Washington, D.C., commuting by train from his parents' home.
Marshall would later break the law that segregated the Maryland law school, but he remained unforgiving. When the law school named a library after him, he didn't attend its dedication. Justice Brennan came over from Washington and made a speech instead.
Robert Watts, a retired circuit court judge, said Lillie Mae Jackson, a longtime NAACP leader in Baltimore, first recruited Marshall for a civil rights case. Watts said Marshall argued for equalization of teachers' pay in Maryland and won.
Jackson was the mother of Juanita Jackson Mitchell, an NAACP leader in her turn. She was the wife of Clarence Mitchell Jr. and a longtime colleague of Marshall's.
Juanita Jackson Mitchell recalled for Juan Williams the euphoria that swept through Baltimore when he won the law school case.
"He brought us the Constitution as a document like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments," she said.
Lillie Mae Jackson recommended Marshall to the NAACP's national office in New York.
"We've got a man in Baltimore who is brilliant," she said.