Advertisement

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall retires

By
GREG HENDERSON

WASHINGTON -- Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black ever appointed to the Supreme Court and currently its most liberal member, Thursday announced his retirement for health reasons after 24 years on the bench.

Marshall, the oldest member of the court who will turn 83 next Tuesday, said in a two-paragraph letter to President Bush that he will step down when a successor is confirmed in the coming months.

Advertisement

'The strenuous demands of court work and its related duties required or expected of a justice appear at this time to be incompatible with my advancing age and medical condition.'

'I, therefore, retire as an associatejustice of the Supreme Court of the United States when my successor is qualified,' Marshall wrote.

Bush said Marshall 'rendered extraordinary and distinguished service to his country,' and called his career, 'an inspiring example for all Americans.'

'He grew up under segregation to achieve the highest office to which a lawyer can aspire,' Bush said in a statement. 'His accomplishments on the bench will long be remembered. We wish him the best in his retirement. I intend to nominate a successor very soon.'

Bush gave no indications of a possible successor, but was expected to be pressured to appoint a minority member. He said he would be looking for 'somebody who believes in the Constitution of the United States.'

Advertisement

Marshall was a lifelong champion of the poor and racially oppressed and the last justice to steadfastly maintain that the death penalty is always cruel and unusual punishment.

The unexpected announcement came on the last day of opinions for the term, as the court -- over Marshall's dissent -- handed down a major defeat for the rights of potential death-row convicts and gave states the right to jail first-time drug offenders for life.

Coupled with last summer's retirement of Justice William Brennan and the addition of Justice David Souter, Marshall's move is expected to give conservatives an unbreakable grip on the direction of the court in the coming years, a development that could have major implications in areas including abortion rights, police power and separation of church and state.

'It's a one-two punch for the liberals on the court,' said University of Virginia law professor and Supreme Court analysit A.E. Dick Howard. 'Marshall's departure virtually guarantees the emergence of a very conservative court whose majority will take hold for a very long time.'

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called Marshall a 'living symbol of the best in American justice. He enriched us all and the country will be poorer for his retirement.'

Advertisement

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, an idealogical antonym of Marshall, said: 'As a lawyer, as an advocate and as a Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall was a champion of equal opportunity for all people in this country.'

Marshall served as U.S. solicitor general, the government's chief representative before the Supreme Court, before his 1967 appointment to the court by President Lyndon Johnson.

Among his best-remembered opinions were a 5-4 ruling in 1986 that executing the insane violates the Eighth Amendment, and a similarly slim 1987 decision that a clerk typist in a Texas constable's office was illegally fired for expressing pleasure over John Hinckley's 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.

In 1983, he wrote that employers must contribute the same amount of money and provide the same health and retirement benefits for men and women, and in 1987 said states may require employers to grant disability leave to pregnant workers and to reinstate them when they return to work.

But in recent terms, especially this year, Marshall found himself routinely voting in dissent, often with only one or two justices by his side.

His retirement leaves only Justice Harry Blackmun, also 82, considered a true liberal on the bench.

Advertisement

While rumors about Marshall's health had been rampant for years at the court, prevailing attitude was he would not retire under a Republican president.

During the Reagan administration, he is said to have told his clerks, 'If I die while Reagan is in office, prop me up and keep on voting.'

'Marshall often liked to say he had a life appointment and he intended to serve out that term,' said Howard, a former Supreme Court law clerk. '(But) he may have realized that assuming a Bush re- election, we're looking at a very long time until the Democrats have a reasonable chance of taking the White House.'

'Even Thurgood Marshall understands the uses of immortality,' Howard said.

Marshall perhaps gave a hint of his intention to step down in the final opinion of the term earlier Thursday, where the court overturned two recent rulings in deciding that the families of murder victims now can testify about their emotional pain at sentencing hearings to push for the death penalty.

Marshall accused Chief Justice William Rehnquist of using the changing court personnel, and no other rationale, to gouge court precedent, and added: 'Today's majority ominously suggests that an even more extensive upheaval of this court's precedents may be in store.'NEWLN: more

Advertisement

xxx in store.'

Ironically, Marshall may best be remembered for his role in arguing before the high court, rather than sitting upon it. As counsel for the NAACP, he successfully argued that the court strike down school desegregation laws in its landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Julius Chambers, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Marshall 'understood that our Constitution has little meaning unless its protections are extended to all American citizens, from indigent, death-row inmates to those with politically unpopular views.'

In 1976, Marshall suffered a heart attack at age 68 but returned to the bench for the term beginning in October. On orders from his doctors, he cut his cigarette smoking from two packs a day and lost 20 pounds. He told reporters then, 'I have this deal with my wife. When I'm starting to get senile, she's going to tell me. Then I'll retire.'

Before his promotion to solicitor general, he served on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1961-65. After he was named to the high court, the Senate confirmed him 69-11. Most of the negative votes came from Deep South critics of the Supreme Court.

Advertisement

Marshall, 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, said he once pledged himself to 'wear life like a very loose garment and never worry about nothing.' He was financially the least wealthy justice, existing primarily on his court salary, which this year jumped to $153,600.

When Marshall joined the court, he fit in well with the more liberal- minded Chief Justice Earl Warren. But his early opinions often were moderate.

In 1969, Marshall wrote that federal law bars police from walking into a suspect's apartment without announcing themselves, even if the door is open.

This term, he watched as his conservative colleagues vastly expanded the search and seizure rights of police.

Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, said the nation is at a 'frightening crossroads' that could lead to major reversals in progress on human rights. She called on Bush to put aside 'partisan politics' and appoint a successor 'worthy of Marshall's legacy.'

Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, called the resignation an 'unimaginable blow to the cause of justice in America.'

Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., predicted: 'We will be a less free people as the Reagan-Bush judges harden their control of the federal judiciary.'

Advertisement

House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., called Marshall's retirement a 'great loss to the court and to the country.'

And Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., said Bush now 'gets a chance to find another Neanderthal,' an apparent reference to Souter, who cast the swing vote this term upholding the government's right to bar doctors at federally funded family planning clinic from discussing abortion with patients.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said Bush does not necessarily have to appoint a black to replace Marshall.

'I don't think there's a quota system for Supreme Court judges, but I think it would be helpful to have some kind of balance on the court,' he said.

Marshall's first wife, Vivian Burey Marshall, died of cancer in 1955. He then married Hawaiian-born Cecelia Suyat, whom he met when she worked in the NAACP office. They had two sons, Thurgood Jr., and John William.

Marshall this week swore in Thurgood Jr. and his daughter-in-law to the Supreme Court bar.

xxx on voting.'

Marshall perhaps gave a foreboding of his intention to step down in the final opinion of the term handed down earlier Thursday, where the court overturned two recent rulings in deciding that the families of murder victims now can testify about their emotional pain at sentencing hearings to push for the death penalty.

Advertisement

Marshall accused Chief Justice William Rehnquist of using the changing court personnel and nothing else to gouge court precedent, and added: 'Today's majority ominously suggests that an even more extensive upheaval of this court's precedents may be in store.'

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called Marshall a 'living symbol of the best in American justice. He enriched us all and the country will be poorer for his retirement.'

Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, called the resignation an 'unimaginable blow to the cause of justice in America.'

Ironically, Marshall may best be remembered as much for his role in arguing before the high court as in serving upon it.

In 1954, he was counsel for the NAACP who successfully argued that the court strike down school desegregation laws in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Rex Hardesty of the AFL-CIO called Marshall, a defender of organized labor, 'one of the greatest justices this nation has ever known.'

On July 4, 1976, Marshall suffered a heart attack at age 68 but returned to the bench for the term beginning in October. On orders from his doctors, he cut his cigarette smoking from two packs a day and lost 20 pounds. He told reporters then, 'I have this deal with my wife. When I'm starting to get senile, she's going to tell me. Then I'll retire.'

Advertisement

During his term as solicitor general, one associate was quoted as saying Marshall was concerned not so much with legal niceties as with 'the problems of humanity.' The remark was revealing.

Before his promotion to solicitor general, he served on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1961-65.

After he was named to the high court, the Senate confirmed him 69-11. Most of the negative votes came from Deep South critics of the Supreme Court.

Marshall, 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, said he once pledged himself to 'wear life like a very loose garment and never worry about nothing.' He was financially the least wealthy justice, existing primarily on his court salary, which this year jumped to $153,600.

When Marshall joined the court, he fit in well with the more liberal- minded Chief Justice Earl Warren. But his early opinions often were moderate.

In 1969, Marshall wrote that federal law bars police from walking into a suspect's apartment without announcing themselves, even if the door is open.

This term, he watched as his conservative colleagues vastly expanded the search and seizurerights of police.

Marshall's first wife, Vivian Burey Marshall, died of cancer in 1955. He then married Hawaiian-born Cecelia Suyat, whom he met when she worked in the NAACP office. They had two sons, Thurgood Jr., and John William.

Advertisement

Marshall this week swore in Thurgood Jr. and his daugther-in-law to the Supreme Court bar.

Latest Headlines