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William T. Coleman — One of the Finest Supreme Court Justices Who Never Was

William T. Coleman — One of the Finest Supreme Court Justices Who Never Was
Transportation Secretary William Coleman announces that the government will require U.S. airlines to muffle their old domestic jets or replace them with quieter, new ones within eight years, at a press conference in Washington, Nov. 18, 1976. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

By Sunday, 02 April 2017 08:28 PM Current | Bio | Archive

When William T. Coleman died Friday, the stellar life of the onetime U.S. Secretary of Transportation and high-powered Washington D.C. attorney was vividly recalled in news outlets nationwide.

A member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society ranked Number One in his Harvard Law School class (1946), Coleman (who was 96) was the first black to serve as clerk to a Supreme Court justice and only the second black Cabinet officer. 

He also helped write the legal briefs for counsel Thurgood Marshall in the landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case (1954), in which the Supreme Court unanimously decided to ban segregated schools.

But what also stood out in Bill Coleman’s life story was what was missing: why wasn’t Coleman, readers are wondering, ever named to the Supreme Court?

No one really knew and the ever-modest Coleman himself did not discuss the speculation about him that never materialized into an appointment. At a charity event in Washington in 2009, I introduced Coleman and wife Lovida to my wife and noted that he had been a clerk to the renowned Justice Felix Frankfurter.

“That’s right,” Coleman responded, but rather than offer anecdotes about himself and Frankfurter, he proceeded to explain that “the other clerk he had was a bright young fellow named Eliot Richardson.  So I had to work hard to keep up!” (Future U.S. Attorney General Richardson and Coleman remained friends for life).

There were other reasons aside from his background that Coleman might be considered for the Supreme Court.  Liberals liked the fact he called himself “a progressive Republican,” but conservatives were delighted that his mentor was Frankfurter, high priest of the concept of “judicial restraint.” 

In 1970, the “Coleman for High Court” speculation began. President Nixon’s appointment of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge G. Harrold Carswell was controversial, especially after Sen. Roman Hruska (R.-Neb.) responded to charges Carswell was a mediocre jurist by saying “mediocre people need a little representation, don’t they?”

The Saturday Evening Post hit back hard with a full-page spread on nine possible justices who were the farthest thing from mediocrity. These included Court of Appeals Judges Henry Friendly (whose future clerk and protégé would be present Chief Justice John Roberts) and Irving Kaufman (the judge in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) and 49-year-old William Coleman.

Carswell was rejected by the Senate and Nixon then named Minnesota jurist Harry Blackmun to the Supreme Court. In 1975, when ailing Justice William O. Douglas retired from the high court, Coleman was again boomed for the appointment. 

But it was not to be. Ford tapped Chicago jurist John Paul Stevens to replace Douglas.

“I don’t think the ‘first black this’ or that relevant,’” Coleman told the Washington Post in 1976, “I’m trying to make a reputation in this town that’s not based on color.”

He did—in a big way.  And his star-studded resume notwithstanding, Bill Coleman remained a regular guy. Adam Clayton Powell, III, president of the Public Diplomacy Council, recalled to me how he and Coleman “unexpectedly were seated next to each other on the New York to Washington shuttle. He was in the middle seat - while he was Transportation Secretary! This was before cabinet members all flew on private jets. Snow diverted us to the Baltimore airport. He turned to me and said, ‘You're on the aisle and you can run faster than I can. I'll meet you at the car rental counter.’

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When William T. Coleman died Friday, the stellar life of the onetime U.S. Secretary of Transportation and high-powered Washington DC attorney was vividly recalled in news outlets nationwide.
william coleman, supreme court, secretary of transportation
Sunday, 02 April 2017 08:28 PM
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