The lives they lived and the court they shaped: Remembering those we lost in 2021
on Dec 31, 2021 at 7:12 pm
The first Black woman to clerk on the Supreme Court. Two trailblazing civil-rights litigators. The unofficial barber of the justices. The woman who argued Roe v. Wade just a few years out of law school.
These were among the lives lost in 2021.
As we did last year, SCOTUSblog looks back and remembers some of the people who died this year and whose lives and work brought them to the highest court in the nation. Some were lawyers. Some were not. All shaped the court in their own ways.
Frank Askin (Jan. 8, 1932 – July 1, 2021)
While attending Rutgers Law School in the 1960s, Frank Askin was a student of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Like his former professor, Askin went on to become a pioneering advocate for civil rights and civil liberties.
Askin served for 36 years as general counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union – the longest tenure of anyone to hold that position. He also founded the Constitutional Litigation Clinic (now the Constitutional Rights Clinic) at Rutgers. In 1972, in Laird v. Tatum, he argued at the Supreme Court on behalf of an anti-war activist who challenged the U.S. Army’s surveillance of conscientious objectors. The court dismissed the case on procedural grounds. Seven years later, Askin helped win Delaware v. Prouse, in which the justices held that police may not conduct traffic stops to check a driver’s license and registration unless they have reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Askin worked on a panoply of other issues, including the rights of protesters to distribute leaflets at shopping malls and the rights of homeless people to use public libraries. “For more than 50 years,” the ACLU of New Jersey wrote in a tribute, “Frank Askin devoted everything within him to the principles of liberty, equality, fairness, and personal freedom.”
Raymond Joseph Billeaud (May 2, 1964 – Oct. 4, 2021)
For 22 years up until his death, Raymond Joseph Billeaud served as a police officer with the Supreme Court Police, the federal law enforcement agency charged with protecting the court and the justices. He was a veteran of the U.S. Marines who served in the Gulf War. He also served as a U.S. presidential guard.
After Billeaud’s death in October, a procession outside the Supreme Court was held in his honor. Fellow law enforcement officers lined 1 First Street to pay their respects.
Ramsey Clark (Dec. 18, 1927 – April 9, 2021)
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Ramsey Clark, a lawyer who had served in various senior positions in the Department of Justice, to be his attorney general. The move caused Clark’s father, Justice Tom Clark, to retire after an 18-year term to avoid conflicts of interest in cases involving the federal government. The shrewd Johnson likely foresaw and intended that outcome — he wanted a vacancy on the Supreme Court so that he could nominate Thurgood Marshall, who was quickly confirmed as the first Black justice.
The younger Clark had an influential career in his own right. As attorney general, he ordered a moratorium on federal executions, helped draft the Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act, and refused to enforce a provision of federal law involving confessions by criminal suspects because he believed it undermined the Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona. After his time as attorney general, he had a long stint in private practice that included arguing on behalf of a distributor of nudist magazines in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia Inc., an important First Amendment case on the standard of proof required in defamation lawsuits.
Diego D’Ambrosio (April 8, 1934 – Oct. 22, 2021)
In 1965, four years after emigrating from Italy, Diego D’Ambrosio opened a hair salon that soon became a Washington, D.C., institution. Over more than five decades, D’Ambrosio cut the hair of presidents, ambassadors, and Supreme Court justices. His son, Fabrizio, called him “the unofficial barber of the Supreme Court.”
His regular clients included Chief Justice Warren Burger, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justice Samuel Alito. Rehnquist once invited him to attend an oral argument and then sent him a copy of the opinion. And after D’Ambrosio’s death earlier this year, Alito remembered him fondly. “He was a cheerful, friendly, kind, and generous man,” he told Tony Mauro of The National Law Journal. “Switching without a pause from English to Italian to Spanish, he obviously loved his work, enjoyed the friendship of customers from all walks of life, and worked tirelessly. Even after he fell and injured his hip, he continued to work by using a walker — and still had a big smile on his face.”
Douglas Huron (Dec. 28, 1945 – June 7, 2021)
As both a government lawyer and in private practice, Douglas Huron spent his legal career advocating on behalf of workers. He represented plaintiffs in important lawsuits involving claims of racial or gender bias by employers, including Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. In that case, Ann Hopkins was denied a promotion because she was perceived as “pushy” and “too macho,” and the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the company’s actions violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It was the first time the court recognized that gender stereotyping qualifies as unlawful sex discrimination.
Huron’s impact extended beyond his work as a litigator. During President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Huron was a White House adviser who led efforts to appoint female and minority candidates to federal judgeships. Huron is credited with recommending Ruth Bader Ginsburg to fill a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Carter appointed Ginsburg to that seat, and 13 years later, President Bill Clinton elevated her to the Supreme Court.
Neil Sheehan (Oct. 27, 1936 – Jan. 7, 2021)
In 1971, with the U.S. military mired in the Vietnam War, a Defense Department analyst named Daniel Ellsberg decided to leak the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the government’s involvement in Vietnam. He photocopied large sections of the report and provided it to Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter who began publishing a series of damning articles.
The government obtained a court order preventing Sheehan from continuing to publish the material. He and the legal team for the Times (as well as The Washington Post, which also had received portions of the Pentagon Papers) quickly appealed, and the case rocketed to the Supreme Court. On June 30, 1971 — 17 days after Sheehan’s first article — the justices ruled 6-3 in New York Times v. United States that Sheehan had a First Amendment right to continue publishing the classified material. The ruling, which limited the circumstances under which the government can obtain a so-called prior restraint on publication, is one of the most important First Amendment decisions in history.
Celina Baez Sotomayor (June 2, 1927 – July 25, 2021)
Born in Puerto Rico and orphaned at age nine, Celina Baez Sotomayor moved to New York during World War II. Her first husband, Juan Luis Sotomayor, died in 1964, leaving her to raise her two children as a single mother in a Bronx housing project. She often worked two jobs, studied at night to become a registered nurse, and bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood for her kids.
Her son became a doctor. Her daughter became the first Latina Supreme Court justice. In 2009, when President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the court, she called her mother an “extraordinary person who is my life aspiration.”
“I have often said that I am all I am because of her,” Sotomayor continued, “and I am only half the woman she is.”
Sarah Weddington (Feb. 5, 1945 – Dec. 26, 2021)
In the late 1960s, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee were recent graduates of the University of Texas School of Law in Austin when they agreed to represent Norma McCorvey, a homeless pregnant woman who was seeking an abortion. They brought a direct challenge to the Texas law that banned abortion at the time, and they litigated it all the way to the Supreme Court. The case was Roe v. Wade.
Weddington, despite being just 26 years old and never having tried a case, handled oral argument. In fact, she argued the case twice. The first time was in December 1971. But the court had only seven justices at that point because two vacancies were unfilled. After two new justices were confirmed, the court ordered re-argument, so Weddington again took the lectern in October 1972.
Three months later, the court handed down its landmark 7-2 ruling establishing a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Weddington went on to have a long and manifold career. She was elected to the Texas legislature, served in the Carter administration, and taught classes on gender-based discrimination. But she never argued another Supreme Court case. Nearly 50 years after her iconic victory, and just 25 days before her death, the court heard Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case in which Mississippi and its supporters have asked the court to overturn Roe.
Karen Hastie Williams (Sept. 30, 1944 – July 7, 2021)
Breaking barriers was in Karen Hastie Williams’ DNA. Her father, William Hastie, was the first Black person to serve as a federal judge. Williams became a lawyer too, and when Justice Thurgood Marshall selected her as a law clerk in 1974, she became the first Black woman ever to clerk at the Supreme Court.
After her clerkship, she served as chief counsel to the Senate Budget Committee, helped increase government contracts to minority-owned businesses as an administrator in the Office of Management and Budget, and eventually went into private practice as a specialist in corporate governance. She became the first woman and first person of color to become a partner at Crowell & Moring, an elite Washington law firm.
Williams also served on numerous boards of corporations and nonprofits, and in 2005, she became the first chair of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s independent board of governors.
Steve York (July 1, 1943 – Aug. 19, 2021)
Steve York was an award-winning documentary filmmaker who directed a variety of films on public affairs, including about the Supreme Court. His two-part series, This Honorable Court, aired on PBS in 1988. Part One traced the history of the court and its landmark decisions. Part Two focused on a single case, Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the court struck down a Louisiana law that required any public school that taught evolution to also teach creationism. York’s film followed the case from the time it was filed at the Supreme Court to the eventual decision. He gained unprecedented access to the justices’ chambers, and the film included interviews with some justices as well as rare footage of the justices speaking with each other and with their law clerks.
Eight years after This Honorable Court aired, the court asked York to create another film about the institution. The 30-minute film he created aired in the court’s visitor’s center for over a decade.
Ellena Erskine contributed research to this article.