The Good and the Bad of JFK's Judges

Kennedy broke some barriers, but still had a mixed record when it came to judicial appointments.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy leaves the Saint Stephen Martyr catholic church after attending mass, on October 29, 1962 in Washington D.C.

One half century ago, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Much praise has been showered on, and considerable criticism has been leveled at, his presidency. However, one critical area that has received minimal attention is the Kennedy administration's selection of U.S. district judges, who serve in the federal trial courts. Because President Kennedy appointed James Parsons, Reynaldo Garza and Nils Tavares – the first African-American, Latino and Asian-American district judges, respectively – in 1961, this initiative merits scrutiny on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Before Kennedy's inauguration, no person of color had ever been a district court judge, although William Hastie briefly served in the District Court for the Virgin Islands and he received an appointment to the Third Circuit in 1950. The exact policies that prompted Kennedy and upper echelon administration officials such as Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Deputy Attorney General Byron White to desegregate the district bench and the precise measures which the administration invoked to confirm people of color remain obscure. Recognition of desegregation's enormous symbolic and actual significance, more generalized interest in promoting civil rights and the growing political power that people of color wielded may have sparked the desegregation effort.

In any event, by 1961's conclusion, the first African-American, Latino and Asian-American district judges had secured nomination and confirmation. These appointments broke the color line that had denied well qualified minority attorneys the opportunity to serve on the federal judiciary. Desegregation concomitantly fostered intrinsic values, such as having a bench that reflects society, which instills public confidence; having jurists who bring different, incisive perspectives on questions, such as discrimination, capital punishment and civil rights, which federal courts address; and having judges who can help negate the biases that may infect the justice system.

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Although eliminating this barrier was important, the Kennedy administration's contribution should not be overstated, as its selection record was checkered. For example, Kennedy confirmed merely one additional African-American to the district bench, although he did nominate two others. Moreover, Thurgood Marshall was the sole person of color whom Kennedy appointed to a court of appeals.

This happened only after a famous exchange recounted in Juan Williams's 2000 biography titled "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary." Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy was reluctant to support Marshall, the preeminent civil rights attorney of his generation, for a Second Circuit vacancy, lest his brother upset southern senators. Thus, the attorney general told Marshall, "You can't go on the court of appeals," and offered him a district court position. When Marshall resisted, Kennedy said, "You don't seem to understand it's this or nothing." Marshall responded: "The trouble with you is that you are different from me. You don't know what it means, but all I've had in my life is nothing. It's not new to me. So goodbye. And (Marshall) walked out." It was only the persistent pressure applied by Louis Martin, President Kennedy's major African-American advisor, that ultimately prompted the president to appoint Marshall.

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Marshall had to endure almost a year-long confirmation process in which senators challenged the nominee's qualifications and his legal expertise outside the civil rights area. A year may seem normal, especially for a Supreme Court nominee, in today's hyper-partisan climate; however, in the 1960s, it was rare. Indeed, Kennedy nominated Judge Garza on March 24 and the Senate confirmed him on April 13, 1961, while Judge Parsons received nomination on August 10 and confirmation on August 30.

In addition to the strikingly few appointments of minorities and the disgraceful treatment accorded Thurgood Marshall, other elements of Kennedy administration judicial selection tarnished the president's legacy. Most salient was Kennedy's willingness, at the instigation of southern senators, to nominate and appoint jurists who supported segregation, a phenomenon reported by Professor Sheldon Goldman in his 1997 monograph titled "Picking Federal Judges."