Four Black lawyers who have argued before the Supreme Court of the United States

This Black History Month, we’re celebrating Black lawyers, both past and present — from the women who have changed history to lawyers who have argued before the Supreme Court.  

Learn about the four Black lawyers you may not have heard of that have argued before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). 

Christina Swarns  

Christina Swarns currently serves as the Executive Director of The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals. 

According to The Innocence Project, “Swarns has dedicated her entire professional career to criminal justice reform. She currently serves as the President and Attorney-In-Charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender, Inc., one of New York City’s oldest institutional providers of indigent appellate defense representation.”  

Previously, Swarns worked at the Capital Habeas Unit of Philadelphia’s Federal Community Defender Office as the Assistant Federal Defender, where she represented death-row inmates whose convictions were reversed. Swarns also worked as the Litigation Director for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) for over ten years.  

Supreme Court Experience 

 In 2016, Swarns argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. The argument revolved around the case of Buck v. Davis where a Texas jury convicted Daniel Buck of capital murder. During his trial, Buck’s lawyer asked a psychologist for an opinion of Buck’s likelihood to commit acts of violence in the future. The psychologist’s report concluded that Buck was unlikely to commit acts of violence in the future and that, statistically, Buck was more likely to commit acts of violence because of his race. The report read: “Race. Black: Increased probability.” (LexisNexis).  

Christina Swarn successfully argued the case. The Supreme Court found that Buck’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated. The case was reversed and remanded.  

According to the Court: “the prisoner demonstrated prejudice during the sentencing phase where his attorney called an expert who testified about a connection between his race and the likelihood of violence, and it was reasonably probable that the death sentence would not have been imposed otherwise.” 

Leondra Kruger 

Leondra Kruger currently serves as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of California. She obtained her Bachelors from Harvard University and her Juris Doctor from Yale. While at Yale, Kruger was the Editor-In-Chief for the Yale Law Journal. She started her career at a corporate litigation law firm prior to clerking for Judge David Tatel on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and later for Justice John Paul Stevens of the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Supreme Court Experience 

From 2007 to 2013, Kruger served as an assistant to the United States Solicitor General where she argued 12 cases before the United States Supreme Court.  

In 2014, California’s governor appointed Kruger to the California Supreme Court. She was the court’s second African-American woman justice and the third youngest appointee ever on the court.

According to the LA Times, Kruger is considered a leading contender for a Biden Supreme Court nominee. Former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal states, “Leondra Kruger is one of the handful of the most brilliant attorneys with whom I’ve ever worked … I cannot imagine a better justice.”  

Debo P. Adegbile 

Debo P. Adegbile was born in New York City. His birth name is Adebowale Patrick Akande Adegbile, and he starred as a child actor on Sesame Street during the 1970s. He received a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and his law degree from New York University School of Law in 1994.

Adegbile worked in various private law firms until 2001. In 2001, he accepted a position with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) as assistant counsel and held different positions until 2013.  

Supreme Court Experience 

During his time with the LDF, he argued his first case before the United States Supreme Court in 2008. He argued in defense of the Voting Rights Act (federal legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting) during this case.  

In 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Adegbile to serve as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. While this nomination was unsuccessful, he was later appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights by Obama in 2016.  

“I became a lawyer because I was interested in the work that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) did during the civil rights era,” he said during a recent interview. “I do the work to keep the American promise for everyone.” Amsterdam News

Verna L. Williams 

Verna L. Williams is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is currently the Dean of the University of Cincinnati School of law and a former law professor who taught family law, gender discrimination, and constitutional law. Before working at the law school, she served as the Vice President and Director of Educational Opportunities at the National Women’s Law Center.  

Supreme Court Experience 

During her time at the National Women’s Law Center, she successfully argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, Davis’ daughter experienced sexual harassment by another student in her fifth-grade class.

Williams argued that the school failed to prevent Davis’ daughter’s suffering and that the school “deprived her daughter of educational benefits promised her under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX).” Oyez.  

Williams successfully argued that schools must respond to student-to-student sexual harassment. The argument resulted in a 5-4 decision in favor of Davis, with Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer in the majority.  

Williams went on to practice law in the U.S. Department of Justice and has published research that “examines the intersection of race, gender, and class in law and policy.” She has also been awarded the Goldman Prize for Excellence in Teaching twice.  

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