The first African American woman appointed to a federal judgeship in the United States, Constance Baker Motley (born 1921) has repeatedly blazed new trails for women in the judiciary, as well as in politics.
Constance Baker Motley led a distinguished career as both a civil rights attorney and a jurist on the federal bench. Representing the voice of both minorities and women during her decades as a practicing attorney, she had also addressed the rights of these same groups from her position on the U.S. District Court of New York State. An energetic, dedicated woman who had devoted her life to the practice of law, she had transcended many stereotypes levelled against members of her sex, earning a reputation as a somewhat uncompromising jurist with little patience for lawyers who overstep their bounds. Upon receiving the Distinguished Alumna Award from Columbia Law School's Women's Association, Motley was cited as "a symbol of success … at a time when there was enormous discrimination against woman, and even more against black women."
Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 14, 1921, the daughter of emigrants from the West Indies. Motley's father worked as a chef on the campus of Yale University, thus ensuring that his daughter would be exposed to an academic environment. As a child, Motley learned about the history of African Americans through her local Sunday School class, in which teachers sought to address the large number of African-Americans in the community.
During her high school years she exhibited both initiative and strong leadership skills, serving as president of the city's Youth Council and as secretary for New Haven's Adult Community Center. These early experiences would serve Motley well after high school graduation; although the financial demands of tuition put college out of reach, she was still able to obtain a good job with the National Youth Administration (NYA) due to her strong clerical and administrative skills and her public service background. Among Motley's tasks at the NYA was addressing topics of interest at the city's public forums. At one such forum, a talk she presented so impressed local businessman Clarence Blakeslee that he offered to put Motley through college.
Motley took Blakeslee up on his offer and enrolled at Fisk University, transferring to New York University after a few semesters and graduating with a degree in economics in 1943. Columbia Law School would be next; Motley received her LL.B. from that institution in 1946. That same year, on August 18, she would marry a local insurance broker named Joel W. Motley, with whom she would eventually have a son.
In 1945, even before completing her law degree at Columbia, Motley began the search for a position as a clerk in a local law firm, the typical first step in the career path of freshly minted young lawyers. However, after a few interviews in which she barely got past the outer office, the young black woman realized that, because of her gender and her race, it would be next to impossible for her to be given a job in a private law firm. She decided, instead, to apply for a position as law clerk at the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), a legal aid society overseen by attorney Thurgood Marshall during the years prior to his 1967 appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Marshall would become a mentor to the young law student, and Motley would remain at the Fund for the next twenty years, becoming assistant counsel in 1950, and the organization's principal trial lawyer in the decade that followed. She was called to the bar of the State of New York in 1948.
As principal legal counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, Motley was almost exclusively involved in the litigation of civil rights cases, working to end discrimination against African Americans in areas of education, housing, employment, transportation, and public accommodations. In 1954 she wrote the briefs presented to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing the plaintiff's side in Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark civil rights case that resulted in the elimination of the "separate but equal" clause that had allowed the continued segregation of many of the nation's public schools.
In the years that followed, Motley would be asked to argue many cases involving the issues raised in Brown, appearing in state and federal courts around the country. Ten of her cases would be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court; of those, she won nine. During her travels, she gained experience working with many judges, one of the most notable of whom was Ohio justice Florence E. Allen, the first woman to sit on the bench of either a state supreme court or a U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1995 Motley would be the recipient of the New York Women's Bar Association's Florence E. Allen award. The award held a special meaning for Motley; as she told the Columbia University Record, "My role model as a female judge was Florence Allen."
In tandem with her work for the NAACP, Motley began a part-time career in government as a member of the New York State Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance, a position she held from 1958 to 1965. Her government job became full-time in 1963 when she served out the unexpired term of New York State Senator James Watson. The following year she was elected to the state senate in her own right, and introduced and supported legislation to establish much-needed low-and middle-in-come housing in New York's urban areas before resigning the following year to pursue another opportunity in politics. In February of 1965, Motley was elected by the New York City Council to fill a one-year vacancy as president of the Manhattan borough, and she still holds the record as the only woman to yet occupy that position. Her success in that capacity earned her a full four-year term in office, during which time Motley developed a program for the revitalization of Harlem and East Harlem, winning the city $700, 000 in funds to plan much-needed improvements for impoverished areas of New York City.
In 1965, on the advice of Supreme Court Justice Ramsey Clark, who had been impressed by Motley's arguments before his court, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Motley for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the bench that hears all cases arising out of the federal trial courts in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. However, opposition to this nomination was so vocal that Johnson withdrew Motley's name and appointed her, instead, as one of twenty-eight U.S. District judges for the Southern District of New York. This post, which was confirmed by the Senate in 1966, made her the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. While Motley had to work twice as hard as her white male colleagues to earn the respect of attorneys and her fellow justices, she eventually gained a reputation as a respected and fair-minded jurist.
After serving the court as district judge for over a decade and a half, in 1982 Motley advanced to the position of Chief Justice, holding this post until 1986 with her appointment as Senior Justice. As a justice on the federal judicial circuit, Motley has been privileged to hear cases involving diverse, often sophisticated points of law dealing with issues regarding the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and disagreements between residents of different states, many of them large corporations.
In 1982 she sentenced six Croatian nationalists to prison terms of over twenty years for murder, arson, and extortion; in 1991, in Basic Books v. Kinko's Graphics Corp., the issue of copyright infringement prompted a ruling by Motley that stores that photocopy and sell excerpts of textbooks for inclusion in course packets were required to pay royalties to publishers, despite the fact that such photocopies were for educational purposes; and in 1994, in a case involving Vassar College, Motley ruled that the denial of tenure to a former biology professor was because she was married-and thus discriminatory-rather than because of poor evaluations. In her lengthy written opinion, Motley noted that the evidence presented at trial showed a pattern of denying tenure to all women educators in the area of the sciences that extended back over three decades, and that marriage was looked upon by the college as synonymous with needing time off to raise children.
In a 1987 decision, Motley addressed the issue of probable cause in detaining individuals suspected of violating the law, ruling that, without exceptional circumstances, suspects cannot be detained by police for more than twenty-four hours without a court ruling that sufficient evidence exists to justify the arrest. New York Legal Aid Society attorney Caesar Cirigiano, who had filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiff, was quoted in the New York Times as calling Motley's ruling "the most important decision in the area of defendants' rights in the last ten years."
In appreciation for her long career in the law, Motley has received many honors and accolades. She was the recipient of the 1984 Candace Award from the National Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, and, in 1988, was asked to address an audience at the University of California at Los Angeles as part of the Thurgood Marshall Lecture series. Her topic, "Thurgood Marshall: The Early Years, " recalled the period she worked alongside the esteemed jurist at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In the fall of 1997 she served as jurist-in-residence at the Indiana University School of Law.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.
Almanac of the Federal Judicial, Volume 1, 1998, pp. 66-68.
American Lawyer, June 1991.
Columbia University Record, June 9, 1995.
New York Times, July 7, 1987, p. 12.
Wall Street Journal, May 17, 1994.
Yale Law Journal, November 1991.