Aloyisus Leon Higginbotham Jr.
A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. was an attorney, a scholar, and a federal judge. His distinguished judicial career culminated in his attaining the rank of chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Higginbotham was born February 25, 1928, in Trenton, New Jersey. Although he attended segregated public schools, his mother was determined that he would receive the same opportunities available to white students. "She knew that education was the sole passport to a better life," he said. No African–American student had been admitted to the academic high school program in Trenton because Latin, a requirement for the program, was not offered at the black elementary schools. But Higginbotham's mother fought for her son's right to enroll and finally convinced the principal to allow him into the program. Higginbotham had no doubt that his mother's advocacy made a difference in the outcome of his life. "When I see students who went to [elementary school] with me now working as elevator operators or on street maintenance," he said, "I often wonder what their future would have been if the school had offered Latin."
After finishing high school, Higginbotham decided to become an engineer and enrolled at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. A winter spent sleeping in an unheated attic with 11 other African–American students caused him to rethink his career goals. "One night, as the temperature was close to zero, I felt that I could suffer the personal indignities and denigration no longer," he wrote in the preface to his book, In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period (1978). He spoke to the university president, who told him the law did not require the university to "let colored students in the dorm." Higginbotham was advised to accept the situation or leave. "How could it be that the law would not permit twelve good kids to sleep in a warm dormitory?" he wondered. He decided then and there to abandon engineering and pursue a career in law.
Higginbotham left Purdue to attend Antioch College, in Ohio, where he studied sociology, earning his bachelor of arts degree in 1949. He went on to Yale Law School, and received his bachelor of laws degree in 1952. Another incident that helped galvanize his commitment to racial equality occurred shortly after his graduation from Yale. He was a job candidate for a prominent Philadelphia law firm that did not know he was black until he arrived for the interview. Although the partner who spoke with him praised his qualifications, he told Higginbotham
he could not do anything for him except direct him to local African–American law firms who might hire him.
Discouraged but not daunted, Higginbotham began his legal career as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia and then became a partner in a law firm that handled business, church, and civil rights cases. President JOHN F. KENNEDY made him a commissioner with the FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION in 1962; he was the youngest person ever appointed to the post and the first African American. The same year, the U.S. Junior CHAMBER OF COMMERCE named him one of its ten outstanding young men. In 1964, President LYNDON B. JOHNSON named him a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; at age 36, he was the youngest federal judge to be appointed in three decades. In 1977, President JIMMY CARTER elevated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which encompasses Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands.
Higginbotham's distinguished judicial career was capped in 1989 when he was promoted to chief judge for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. At the time, he was the only African– American judge directing one of the federal judiciary's 12 circuits. His ascendancy was hailed by many who saw it as proof that the U.S. judicial system was becoming more inclusive. Guido Calabresi, dean of Yale Law School, praised him as "a first-rate judge, a sensitive judge, who is powerful in style and analytically strong." But some African–American lawyers felt that too much emphasis was placed on Higginbotham's skin color and on the racial import of his promotion. "There is no more significance to it than anybody else becoming Chief Judge," said THUR-GOOD MARSHALL, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. "I think he is a great lawyer and a very great judge. Period."
Higginbotham was an outspoken proponent of CIVIL RIGHTS and racial equality. In 1990, he declined to officiate at a MOOT COURT competition at the University of Chicago Law School because, he said, Chicago was the only one of the top ten schools in the United States that "for two decades has not had even one black professor in either a tenured position or a tenure-track position."
Higginbotham's devotion to civil rights was evident in his criticism of Justice CLARENCE THOMAS, a conservative African American whose nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 provoked criticism and controversy. In an article titled "An Open Letter to Justice Clarence Thomas from a Federal Judicial Colleague" (U. Pa.L.Rev., Jan. 1992), Higginbotham called upon Thomas to remain cognizant of his responsibilities as an African American on the Supreme Court. He reminded Thomas of the discrimination both men's grandfathers had faced and of Thomas's debt to the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, commenting that without the movement, "probably neither you nor I would be Federal judges today." He was also sharply critical of Thomas's record. He noted that after studying nearly all of Thomas's speeches and writings, "I could not find one shred of evidence suggesting an insightful understanding on your part of how the evolutionary movement of the Constitution and the work of the civil rights organizations have benefited you."
During his career, Higginbotham was awarded more than 60 honorary degrees; in 1969, he became the first African American elected to the board of trustees of Yale University. He was also a tireless lecturer, teaching at various times over the course of 20 years at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Stanford, New York University, and Yale. In addition, Higginbotham was well known for his prolific writings, including more than one hundred articles. His book In the Matter of Color received several national and international awards. In 1996, he published Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process.
In 1993, Higginbotham retired from the circuit court and formed an association with the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison in New York City. In 1995, President BILL CLINTON awarded Higginbotham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. In the same year, President Clinton appointed him to serve a six-year term as a commissioner of the U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS. Higginbotham died of a stroke on December 14, 1998, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Diver, Colin S. 1999 "A. Leon Higginbotham: A Tribute." The Pennsylvania Gazette. Available online at <www.upenn.edu/gazette/0399/higginbotham.html> (accessed July 7, 2003).
Higginbotham, A. Leon. 1996. Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.