WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) joined Dean James R. Rasband of the Brigham Young University Law School on June 7 to present the 10th annual Rex Lee Advocacy Award to William T. Coleman, a trailblazing civil rights advocate and eminent attorney.
Pioneer. Respected and skilled advocate. Honorable man. These defining traits and achievements of Rex E. Lee, founding dean of the BYU law school and former Solicitor General of the United States are ones that the J. Reuben Clark Law Society acknowledges every year with an award to other outstanding advocates.
The award honors “a distinguished advocate who has exemplified excellent and principled advocacy throughout his or her legal career.”
“Mr. Coleman is a remarkable Supreme Court advocate,” said Dean Rasband, who highlighted Coleman’s lifetime of service and relentless efforts in the courts to end segregation. Notably, Coleman co-authored the brief for Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark case in which the Supreme Court held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
A native of Philadelphia, Coleman personally experienced the segregation of his era. Only seven black students attended his high school, and when he tried out for the all-white swim team, the school simply eliminated the sport, only to reinstate it upon Coleman’s graduation.
But the promising student went on to graduate summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941, and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1946. He left law school briefly during World War II to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he served as defense counsel, winning acquittals in 16 of 18 court-martial proceedings.
After serving as a law clerk for Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Mr. Coleman also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1949. As such, he became the first person of color — a description Mr. Coleman prefers — to ever serve in that capacity.
As a young associate in New York, he became friends with Thurgood Marshall and began to help him with cases to end segregation. He went on to defend freedom riders and civil rights workers, and he eventually became President of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
He also served on the President’s Commission on Employment Policy for President Eisenhower in 1959, and he became only the second person of color to serve in a cabinet post when he was President Ford’s Secretary of Transportation in 1975. For over thirty years, he has been with the Washington law office of O’Melveny and Myers, and in 1995, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It’s hard to talk about what used to be,” said Coleman. “The country has changed so much.”
He recalled the years when women couldn’t get into Harvard Law School, although now 47% of law students at Harvard are women and 12% are minorities. He also pointed to the growing numbers of people of color who lead or are senior executives with top U.S. companies.
Throughout his experiences as an advocate, which include losing a case to opposing attorney Rex Lee, Mr. Coleman never lost his faith in the country or its legal system.
“What makes it great is the Supreme Court of the United States,” he emphasized.
Although he believes the U.S. has “overcome the challenges of the past,” he reminded that educating children and providing equal opportunities are ongoing issues. Instead of letting his past make him bitter, however, Coleman has kept his faith in the American people, believing that they individually have done more to effect real change than the government or any other institution.
“American citizens have done a great job. Let’s keep it that way,” he counseled.
Following Mr. Coleman’s remarks, Jay Jorgensen, a litigator in the law firm of Sidley Austin who clerked for Justice Alito at the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, introduced his former boss and called him a dedicated and humble man.
“He is constant and true to things he believes in,” Jorgensen remarked, adding that Justice Alito desires to apply the law evenly and fairly to everyone, regardless of their backgrounds, and he is strongly committed to religious liberty.
Before focusing his remarks on the life and accomplishments of Rex Lee, Justice Alito said he was privileged to speak at an event that honored Coleman. Plus, he noted his special affinity for BYU Law School, thanks to the number of graduates who have clerked for him.
“There’s a rich pool of talent that hasn’t been recognized as it should have by a lot of other federal judges,” he continued.
He also acknowledged Senator Hatch, a man he considered “courteous and fair” during his confirmation hearings.
Although he said that many people think the confirmation process is “broken,” he described Senator Hatch as “living proof” that someone can ask the required hard questions and still treat people with respect.
Then Justice Alito turned to the legacy of Rex Lee, whose contributions he believes “are even clearer now.” He spoke of Lee’s achievements as “the Founding Father” of the current group of highly specialized Supreme Court advocates.
“Rex invented the role of a private practitioner arguing cases before the Supreme Court,” Justice Alito explained. Lee argued 59 cases before the Supreme Court during the course of his career, many of them while serving as U.S. Solicitor General from 1981-85. Referring to that time, Justice Alito said, “With Rex at the helm, the Office’s record in the Supreme Court was truly impressive and included many landmark decisions.”
But Justice Alito also emphasized Lee’s thoughtful and professional skills as a manager who made sure every “client” knew that his request had been “fully and carefully considered.” He likewise recognized Lee as a personable man, husband, and father, quoting a tribute by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Twelve: “Rex’s life was in balance.”
As a junior member in the Solicitor General’s Office during Lee’s tenure, Justice Alito said he had “a private’s view of the general.” There he observed not only what Lee did but also the way he did it, and he learned from Lee’s professional management style.
For example, when Justice Alito unexpectedly had to take over someone else’s case, with limited time to prepare the argument, Lee not only took time to discuss it with him, but also sat at counsel table with him on the day of the case. What made this especially noteworthy was that this occurred on the eve of an important criminal case that Lee himself was scheduled to argue: United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). Lee’s concern about someone else at a crucial time in his own life, “showed his character,” according to Justice Alito.
What made Lee a good advocate, he recalled, are the standards by which Lee lived.