The liberal lion

July 01, 1991

Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that the life of the law is not of logic but of experience. That being so, it is safe to say that Thurgood Marshall brought more authentic life into the musty halls of the Supreme Court than any of his fellow jurists.

Marshall's experience was both bitter and sweet -- bitter, because he endured personally the cruelties of segregation and abuse; sweet, because as a result of his own Herculean efforts, that legacy was overcome, at least in a formal sense.

Who can possibly fill the shoes of Justice Marshall, the liberal lion who is now retiring after 24 years on the high bench? Appointed by President Johnson in 1967, Marshall became the first black ever to serve as a justice. At the time Johnson remarked of Marshall, "He has already earned his place in history" -- as indeed he had. Even after nearly a quarter of a century on the bench, he will still be remembered as one of America's great lawyers, in a class with Daniel Webster and Clarence Darrow.

As chief legal counsel for the NAACP, Marshall won the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case that outlawed school segregation -- a landmark decision that was itself the culmination a long string of civil rights victories Marshall won, including a famous case against the University of Maryland Law School, which once denied him admission because of his race.

There is, of course, considerable speculation that President Bush will appoint a black person to the vacant seat. But if he does, we hope that he will keep his eye on justice, not politics. If that's the case, then he will choose someone who has the stature that Marshall had when he went onto the court. One such person who comes into mind is Derek Bell, the Harvard Law professor.

But we fear that is mere wishful thinking. More likely, the president will name someone who will solidify the conservative majority on the court into the next millennium.

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