Professional Integrity and Thurgood Marshall

June 22nd, 2010
Jim Thomas

Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey was directly on point when he observed, “We all expect integrity from professionals.”  That includes lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, architects, realtors,–all who are licensed to offer specialized services to the public.  We look upon them as experts in their respective fields.  We rely upon their trustworthiness, reliability, credibility, consistent and persistent performance until the task is finished.  We also expect them to adhere to the standards and demands of their organized professions.

 Integrity is a great imperative of the legal profession.  Justice Maura D. Corrigan of the Michigan Supreme Court says, “The lawyer can have all the legal ability in the world, but it is worthless if the practitioner has no integrity.  If others cannot trust you at your word, what good are you to your client, the court, attorneys, or others?  What credibility do you have?”

 The profession does not ignore it.  Upright conduct is taught in the law schools and is incorporated in codes of responsibility throughout the country.  No lawyer exemplified it more than Thurgood Marshall did.  As a NAACP staff attorney, he represented African-Americans in the volatile atmosphere of civil rights litigation during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

  Marshall appeared as defense counsel, the voice for the voiceless, in courthouses throughout the American South.  “Thurgood is coming,” they would say.  And he never let them down.  His clients were often destitute, disinherited, undereducated, unknown, hated, and despised.  With their civil rights frequently violated, they stood charged with crimes in courts of law contaminated with racial bias, prejudice, and state-sanctioned racism.  In viewing photos and footage of those events, it is hard to believe they occurred in the legal system of this country.

 For him and his colleagues public accommodations were unavailable.  They were forced to lodge and eat in private residences and out of the way place.  More than once, they fled for their lives, in the dead of night, from people who hated their advocacy, who bore arms and were intent upon shooting them.  Yet, even in the darkest nights in Alabama and Mississippi, he and his associate attorneys insisted on a few belts of bourbon and a game of poker

 Marshall shunned submission. Unawed by the difficulties, he refused intimidation and continued the representation, case-by-case, trial after courtroom trial, year after year.  Armed with the mighty tenants of the Constitution, he steered some thirty-two cases from rural trial courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he personally argued and won twenty-nine of them, including Brown v.  The Board of Education.  His career stands as a polestar of integrity and professional excellence in American law and jurisprudence.

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