Since I had to prepare remarks for a panel discussion for today, I was unable to do my weekly First Amendment News column. Instead, I opted to present an abbreviated essay from a work-in-progerss, actually two. In the main, I stitched together something from one of my books (We Must not be Afraid to be Free) and a future article (“The Maverick – A Biographical Sketch of Richard Posner”), this in addition to some reliance on Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion (2010) by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel and other works. I also benefitted from the thoughtful assistance of Judge Posner and Robert M. O’Neil. The result is this post, also a prelude to a more scholarly work on NAACP v. Button (1963). Shortly, I will say more about Judge Posner’s involvement in Button, but before I do I thought it might useful to say a few prefatory things about the history of the case.
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The case’s original name was NAACP v. Patty, which began in 1957. After cert. was granted, the case name changed to NAACP v. Gray. Later it would be changed to Button, the last name of the Virginia Attorney General at the time. The controversy involved a challenge to five Virginia laws which, according to Fourth Circuit Court Judge Morris Aimes Soper, “were enacted [in 1956] for the express purpose of impeding the integration of the races in the public schools of the state which the plaintiff corporations are seeking to promote.” The laws in question banned the encouragement of certain kinds of litigation (“barratry” statutes) and the solicitation of clients (including in pro bono cases) and/or the financing of litigation (“champerty” statutes). The lawyer who represented the NAACP was Robert L. Carter (1917-2012), Thurgood Marshall’s chief legal assistant (and later General Counsel to the NAACP). By 1957, recalled Carter in his memoir (A Matter of Law), the group was involved in 25 cases in various states employing barratry and champerty laws aimed at halting civil rights litigation. Henry T. Wickham (1920-2008) represented the state of Virginia. In his obituary it was noted that Mr. Wickham “served as a special assistant to former Virginia Attorney General J. Lindsay Almond Jr. representing Virginia in an effort to preserve segregated public schools” in Brown v. Board.
→ For an informative and thoughtful account of Button, see Harry Kalven, Jr., The Negro and the First Amendment 75-90 (1965).
The Hand of Fate
When it came time for a conference vote in the Button case, Chief Justice Earl Warren, predictably, voted to reverse. “The purpose of the statute is obviously to circumvent Brown,” he said. Justice Hugo Black agreed. “This is part of a scheme to defeat the Court’s order, and sooner or later we will have to grapple with these problems in those terms. The NAACP is finished if this law stands.” But Justice Felix Frankfurter pushed back. “I can’t imagine a worse disservice than to continue being the guardians of the Negroes. . . . There is nothing in the record to show that this statute is aimed at Negroes as such.” Justices Tom Clark and Charles Evans Whittaker agreed. “To strike this law down, we would have to discriminate in favor of Negroes,” said Clark, to which Whittaker added: “We should be color blind on this law.”
Warren added up the votes. It was a five-to-four split in favor of the state of Virginia. Justice Frankfurter eagerly began work on his majority opinion upholding Virginia’s law—the laws that made the NAACP’s brand of non-pecuniary solicitation and financing of litigation a disciplinary offense that could result in disbarment. (For a discussion of Frankfurter’s early role in the case, see Mark V. Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law 277-278 (1994).)
At the same time, Justice Black circulated drafts of a dissent in which he claimed, among other things, that perhaps the law should be renamed “[a]n Act to make it difficult and dangerous for the [NAACP] and Virginia lawyers to assert the constitutional rights of Virginia Negroes in state and federal courts.” Then Black added a passage revealing how far removed he was from his days as a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan. “The job of lawyers under [the] Constitution is not to lead revolutions, but to lead their people in taking advantage of the American methods for correcting injustice.” And courts, Black continued, had a responsibility to serve as “sanctuaries of justice.” To ignore that role here, he concluded, was to leave the courts “a little less havens of refuge than they were before this Virginia law was sustained.”
Justice Black’s internal comments exposed just how wide the ideological chasm had grown between the members of this Court. But Robert Carter wouldn’t get a chance to read them. Nor, for that matter, would anyone else. On April 1, 1962, before the Court could announce its decision in NAACP v. Button, Justice Whittaker retired on the advice of his physician. He was sixty-one. The “great volume and continuous stresses of the court’s work,” he explained in a written statement, had brought him to the “point of physical exhaustion.” That left a four-to-four split among the remaining jurists, who scheduled a rehearing of the case the following term. Then, a few days later, seventy-nine-year-old Felix Frankfurter collapsed at his desk from a stroke. He lived, but shortly afterwards he announced his retirement. Just like that, President Kennedy could appoint two new Justices—and Robert Carter could feel new hope.
→ An audio of the arguments in NAACP v. Gray can be found here.
New Faces, New Result
By the fall of 1962, President Kennedy had successfully appointed to the bench his top two choices—Byron White and Arthur Goldberg. And it promised to be a busy fall at the Supreme Court after they were both confirmed. Sometime around then, as Stern and Wermiel recount it, Justice Brennan busily circulated a 63-page memo that detailed the activities of the NAACP and its Virginia branch.
After hearing rearguments in Button, the Justices met privately to discuss the case on October 12, 1962. Chief Justice Warren had not changed his mind since first discussing the facts a year earlier. “The NAACP has a right to be in business,” he began. “If this suit goes against the NAACP, it is out of business.” Justices Black, Douglas, and Clark also maintained their original opinions. So did the typically restrained Justice John Marshall Harlan, who continued to claim that Virginia’s new law was “plainly constitutional. . . . Brown v. Board of Education will never work out if it is left in the federal domain. The states must do it. We have no reason to reverse Virginia on this law.” Justice Potter Stewart, the Eisenhower appointee from Cincinnati with the unpredictable voting record, was the first of the veteran Justices to suggest a possible change of heart. “I am not sure,” he said, “but I am inclined to reverse.” Justice White, the first of the two new members to speak at the private conference, was even less certain than Stewart. “I do not know where I stand.” Goldberg was more certain. “There is a substantial equal protection point here and I could reverse on that,” he said. Read More