"America lost one of the greatest champions of equal opportunity and human rights that our nation has ever known." -- Alan Jenkins
New York Times as a "leading strategist and a persuasive voice in the legal assault on racial segregation in 20th-century America," died at the age of 94 on January 3rd. As a lawyer with the NAACP, he was enormously influential in crafting the legal strategy used in the cases that led to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and later served with great distinction as a federal judge.
As Alan Jenkins, Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda, and a former law clerk to Judge Carter writes:
Judge Carter was a primary architect behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, crafting an innovative approach that blended constitutional scholarship, social science research, historical knowledge, and strategic litigation. After the victory, he pursued a strategy that helped bring desegregation to the North, where it had long been treated as an open secret. Over his career, he argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court, and won 21 of them.Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a law professor at the University of Virginia, another former clerk, notes:
Not content to bask in the afterglow of his great achievement, the judge critiqued the legal strategy in Brown. He found a paradox. Brown served the U.S.’s geopolitical interests, and in many ways, propelled race relations forward in this country. But, ironically, in the public schools context, Brown proved a tremendous disappointment. The federal judges charged with articulating rights, and local officials charged with implementing legal remedies, ultimately bear the blame for Brown’s mixed legacy in the schools. However, Judge Carter also found fault with himself and his colleagues. The lawyers, he said, fixated on the constitutional dimensions of Brown, when the case also touched upon critically important matters of educational philosophy and pedagogy. The attorneys did not seriously contemplate, much less adequately define, quality education. That limitation left generations of black students adrift in schools, subject to social experimentation, or worse, educational malpractice.While Brown received the most notoriety, two civil liberties cases, NAACP v. Alabama and NAACP v. Button, are vital parts of Carter's legacy:
These cases grew out of Southern states’ efforts to destroy the NAACP. In the first case, Alabama demanded that the association turn over its membership list; in the second, Virginia claimed that the manner in which the NAACP attracted plaintiffs for its test cases violated an ethics rule against soliciting business or “stirring up” litigation. As NAACP counsel in both cases, Carter argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the states’ demands violated the members’ associational and speech rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Carter’s theory of the case, which rested on creative thinking about the intersections and boundaries of constitutional rights, prevailed against those who argued that civil liberties could be separated from civil rights. Carter’s victories at the Supreme Court saved the organization and affirmed his leadership and courage. Some within the NAACP had not wanted to fight these battles; they were prepared to turn over the association’s membership lists to Alabama, an act that would have left loyal NAACP members exposed to reprisals by the white power structure in a Deep South state. Carter knew better.Carter "earned a reputation as a man of strong convictions, unyielding principle, and great passion." As Brown-Nagin further explains: "Carter earned the reputation when, as Thurgood Marshall’s lieutenant, he consistently took the most “radical” view among LDF strategists, and when he resigned as General Counsel of the NAACP to support a colleague’s right to criticize the Warren Court." On the other hand, he emphasized that "success in the legal profession requires a clear head, a balanced and context-specific assessment of a problem, and a judicious temperament. He conveyed that passion for one’s work or causes can be productive, only if coupled with strategic thinking and professionalism."
President Nixon nominated Carter to the federal bench in 1972. According to Jenkins,"as a federal judge, he held litigants to the highest standards, while rigorously guarding equal justice under law." In "over four decades on the bench, he brought greater inclusion to the New York Police Department and to construction trades that had long excluded people of color and women. And he continued to speak out against injustice wherever he encountered it."
And as Brown-Nagin describes: "His insistence that lawyers understand legal problems in context — social, political, economic — and work up cases and formulate remedies with subject matter experts, and after clearly defining client interests, left a lasting imprint. This kind of expert-driven, client-centered approach guides the work of some of the most highly regarded public interest lawyers."
Robert Carter, Brown-Nagin concludes, was "a lawyer and judge beyond measure, a visionary and an extraordinary mentor . . . may the great man rest in peace."