Related topics

Thurgood Marshall Retiring From Supreme Court

June 27, 1991 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black to serve on the nation’s highest court and a forceful advocate for civil rights, announced his retirement today.

Marshall, 82, cited his ″advancing age and medical condition″ in a letter to President Bush announcing he would leave the court ″when my successor is qualified.″

As a justice, Marshall championed individual rights such as privacy and abolition of the death penalty, and has been a staunch defender of the 1973 ruling that granted women the right to an abortion.


His departure gives Bush a chance to make his second appointment to the high court, after David Souter. It could bolster the court’s conservative majority, and makes it more likely the court will restrict affirmative action, enhance law enforcement efforts and overturn the abortion decision.

Bush said in a statement he intended ″to nominate a successor very soon.″

He said Marshall ″has rendered extraordinary and distinguished service to his country as a pioneering civil rights lawyer, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, as solicitor general and in his tenure on the Supreme Court.″

″His career is an inspiring example for all Americans,″ Bush said. ″He grew up under segregation to achieve the highest office to which a lawyer can aspire. His accomplishments on the bench will long be remembered. We will him the best in his retirement.″

Speculation about a successor focused on black and Hispanic judges to replace Marshall, the nation’s first black high court jurist.

These included Circuit Judge Amalya L. Kearse, a black women who was appointed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in 1979 by President Carter; Clarence Thomas, a black conservative Bush appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Ricardo Hinojosa, a federal district judge in Texas appointed in 1983 by President Reagan; Ferdinand F. Fernandez, a member of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Los Angeles promoted to the appellate bench by Bush in 1989; and Edith Jones, a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals judge who was a finalist for the last vacancy.

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, suggested possible successors might include Judge Patrick Higgenbotham of the 5th Circuit Court in Houston and Solicitor General Kenneth Starr.


Marshall was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. He had been the solicitor general and, as chief legal officer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the country’s preeminent civil rights figures.

Sen. Edward M. 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.″

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., told reporters ″It’s a great loss to the court and the country. He had one of the most distinguished careers in the history of the United States Supreme Court.″

Marshall is the high court’s leading liberal and in recent years he assumed the role of an embattled dissenter. In the 1990-91 term that concluded today, Marshall again filed almost three times as many dissenting votes as the court’s conservative justices.

Marshall’s note to the president did not mention any specific health problem. But the justice is known to suffer from failing eyesight, and for years has had various health problems.

″The strenuous demands of the 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,″ Marshall said in his two-paragraph message to the president.

When Johnson nominated Marshall, he said ″I believe he has already earned his place in history,″ a reference to Marshall’s long struggle on behalf of civil rights as a private attorney.

Marshall argued the case which resulted in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school segregation.

Marshall’s place in history was assured before his appointment to the high court. To some, he ranks with the Rev. Martin Luther King as a leader in the battle for racial equality.

For decades, Marshall traveled the nation as the recognized legal champion of the poor and powerless. During his 23 years as legal director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and his tenure as the federal government’s solicitor general, Marshall argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court.

He won 29.

In recent years, Marshall’s work habits have been criticized, primarily by conservative activists. They questioned whether he was healthy enough and interested enough to carry his share of the high court’s duties.

Standing 6 feet 2 and overweight, Marshall shuns exercise. He suffered a heart attack in 1976, has had bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis and was hospitalized in 1987 with a potentially dangerous blood clot in his right foot.

Marshall walks slowly with apparent difficulty. Family members reportedly convinced him a few years ago to stop driving.

Marshall was hospitalized last year after suffering a fall in the lobby of a Chicago hotel.

Once confirmed to the Supreme Court by the Senate, Marshall quickly found a philosophical home with its liberal activists, at that time in the majority but later outnumbered as the appointees of President Richard M. Nixon gave the court a conservative cast.

In the Nixon court period, Marshall was among the dissenters approximately a quarter of the time.

In his first term, Marshall spoke for the court in ruling that a man has the right to counsel at a hearing to revoke his probation and that the Constitution’s guarantee against double jeopardy is binding on the states.

By June of 1970, he was more often in dissent. In that month, for example, he spoke for a three-man minority as the court upheld the suspension of eight students from East Tennessee State University for distributing leaflets on campus. ″Our system promises to college students as to everyone else that they may have their say,″ Marshall wrote.

Four years later, he dissented sharply from a ruling invalidating a plan for busing pupils across school district lines to achieve racial integration. He called the ruling a ″giant step backward″ from the court’s 1954 decision striking down school segregation.

Also in the 1973-74 term, Marshall spoke for the majority in extending free speech guarantees to organizing campaigns by recognized unions and in requiring employers to root out past wage discrimination against women workers.

In the 1974-75 term, he dissented from rulings denying a hearing to people whose electrical power is cut off for nonpayment, upholding a one-year residence requirement for divorce and empowering presidents to set conditions when granting pardons.

In a 5-4 decision in 1972 that struck down capital punishment laws then on the books, Marshall was one of two justices who went all the way and declared that the death penalty was unconstitutional under any circumstances. He said it was ″morally unacceptable to the people of the United States.″