More Black lawyers needed in Supreme Court

Freddie Allen | 5/27/2013, 5:03 p.m.
In nearly 4,500 minutes of arguments heard by the justices of the United States Supreme Court since October, one Black ...
Debo Adegbile, special counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, speaks with reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington after arguments in the Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder voting rights case, Feb. 27 Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON – In nearly 4,500 minutes of arguments heard by the justices of the United States Supreme Court since October, one Black lawyer stood before them for less than 12 minutes. As the nation’s highest court becomes more diverse – with one Black attorney and three women, one being Latina – the small pool of lawyers that they see tend to lack diversity.

The Associated Press reported that just one Black lawyer, Debo Adegbile, a former lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, appeared before the United States Supreme Court during the approximately 75 hours of oral arguments. Adegbile represented a small contingent of Black residents of Shelby County, Ala., a jurisdiction challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision crafted to guard against discrimination at the polls.

The justices that serve on the Supreme Court are the most diverse in history, but from October to April, according to AP, most lawyers that appeared before them were White men.

The lack of diversity in the lawyer pool that argues cases at the Supreme Court reflects a larger issue of the lack of diversity in the pipeline that flows to the nation’s top law firms, from the Office of the Solicitor General to the Supreme Court.

“You can say it’s a reflection or you can say it’s an indictment of the entire legal profession for not having the type of diversity that promotes African American lawyers to the top,” said Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization that advocates for equality through the rule of law.

Minorities account for less than 7 percent of partners at law firms in the United States, according to a study by the National Association for Law Placement Inc., a group that offers career counseling and professional development resources for law students and lawyers. Less than 5 percent of lawyers practicing in the United States are Black.

Many of the lawyers presenting cases at the Supreme Court spring from the Office of the Solicitor General. That office decides the position the federal government will take in Supreme Court cases and is involved in roughly two-thirds of all the cases that make it to the nation’s highest court every year. Celebrated Civil Rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, the first Black to serve on the United States Supreme Court, was also the first Black to serve as United States solicitor general from 1965-1967 after President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the post. Three out of the 46 solicitor generals in United States history have been Black. Only one woman, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, has served as solicitor general.

Justices often lauded Marshall’s ability to humanize legal arguments and share his unique perspective of discrimination and racism in America. The Lawyers’ Committee president said that lawyers that have lived with those issues and overcome those obstacles are able to speak to those issues in a way that benefits the court and lends passion to their arguments.