A Gift From a Justice to the People
THE late United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall spent his career in battle against closed minds and hard hearts of American political life. Justice Marshall was an epic warrior - in for the long haul - after adversaries had celebrated victories in individual battles.
Today he is enmeshed in a historic donnybrook over access to his personal papers for more than 3,000 cases he heard while on the Supreme Court.
In keeping with what appears to have been the justice's wishes, the Library of Congress has released the papers that provide rare insight into the court's workings and its current and past personalities. Marshall's family and many associates complain that the justice never intended those papers, complete with personal notes among the justices, be released so soon after his death last January.
"He planned to burn his papers," many of them say. "He was going to destroy them all." And they are right, as far as they go. The justice had made that determination after returning a $250,000 advance he sorely needed to publish his memoirs. Incredibly, the New York publishers told him they were uninterested in a book that did not reveal the secrets of the court's inner sanctum. This, he refused to do. That the life story of Thurgood Marshall without the court papers was not worth the advance speaks volu mes about the mindset of book publishers when it comes to African-Americans.
Months later, Marshall signed the agreement with the library that upon his death, "the collection shall be available to the public at the discretion of the library." This was vintage Marshall. Faced with a publisher's unseemly demand, the justice was not a burner of history. He made history, and he almost certainly wanted to leave a record of his court years intact and available for scholarly research.
In his last years Marshall grew increasingly worried about the right-wing direction of the court. And instead of joining, or even writing, majority opinions affirming human and civil rights, the justice found himself at the end writing thundering dissents to what he saw as a degradation of American liberty.
So worried was the justice over this trend, that he reminded associates during President Reagan's second term: "I have an appointment for life, and I plan to serve out my term." As his health failed, Marshall changed his mind about that; just as, it seems, he changed his mind about burning his papers. Marshall's last gift to the democracy he did so much to nurture may turn out to be his greatest. By rending the veil on the extreme, antiquated secrecy in The Temple, Marshall has reaffirmed the sovereignty
of the people in our republic.
With his retirement and replacement by Clarence Thomas, the justice's ideological enemies figured that they had won. Once more, however, they are reminded that Thurgood Marshall is not finished with them yet.