Politics and Government

Federal Courts

Have African Americans served on the appeals court?

In 1966 Spottiswood Robinson (1916–1998) became the first black judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia. He attended Virginia Union University in Richmond for a while, but entered Howard University School of Law, graduating magna cum laude in 1939. He taught for eight years at Howard in Washington, D.C., advancing from teaching fellow to associate professor. Robinson was admitted to the Virginia bar and practiced in Richmond during the struggle for civil rights. Immediately his work catapulted him to national prominence. He left Howard and became an attorney for the Legal Defense Fund of Virginia’s NAACP. He joined his former mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, in a successful Supreme Court case that outlawed restrictive covenants that prevented the sale of real estate to blacks. Robinson was named southeast regional counsel for the NAACP’s defense fund in 1951. Working with Thurgood Marshall and others, he was successful in his argument before the Supreme Court, resulting in the court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas to strike down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education in the South. Other civil rights cases that Robinson won related to desegregation in interstate buses and in public parks. Robinson left his practice in 1960 and became dean of the law school at Howard University until 1963. President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, named him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1964 Robinson became the first black to serve as a judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. He was named to the Court of Appeals in 1966, becoming chief judge of that court from 1981 to 1986. Robinson retired in 1992 and returned to Richmond where he died.


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