The Legal Hall of Fame: 10 Key Figures in the History of Law
It’s difficult to objectively pluck a mere ten figures from the annals of history to feature as key lawyers for the criminal justice system. But this list was created with an eye to men and women, black and white, who made their marks in American courts over the past 300 years. Some individuals served as U.S. Presidents (actually, only two are noted here, although 25 lawyers eventually became presidents). The women are included as markers for progress, showing that even Bella Abzug was denied entry to law school because of her gender as late as the 20th century. All ten lawyers listed below fought for justice, often in unpopular venues and in with remarkable skill and ethics.
- John Adams (1735-1826) is best known as one of America’s Founding Fathers and the second President of the U.S. However, he was derided in his role as a defense lawyer for eight British soldiers who were convicted of mortally wounding five Americans during what is now known as the Boston Massacre. By taking on the unpopular defense, Adams lost over half his law practice. But, his actions, based upon his belief that every person deserved a defense, eventually earned him accolades. The jury acquitted six of the eight soldiers, while two were convicted of manslaughter and their thumbs were branded. As president, Adams appointed John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Marshall was the longest-serving Chief Justice of the United States.
- Henry Clay (1777-1852) was a lawyer, politician, and skilled orator. Clay’s most notable client was Aaron Burr in 1806, after the US District Attorney Joseph Hamilton Daviess indicted him for planning an expedition into Spanish Territory west of the Mississippi River. Clay and his law partner, John Allen, successfully defended Burr. Some years later Thomas Jefferson convinced Clay that Daviess had been right in his charges. Clay was so upset that, many years later when he met Burr again, Clay refused to shake his hand. Clay brokered important compromises during the Nullification Crisis and on the slavery issue (although he owned 60 slaves, whom he released with his Will). As part of the “Great Triumvirate” or “Immortal Trio,” along with his colleagues Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, he was instrumental in formulating the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.
- Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was a lawyer who changed the face of the country during the American Civil War when he served as the 16th President of the U.S. He preserved the Union, ended slavery, and promoted economic and financial modernization. Self-educated, Lincoln became a country lawyer, an Illinois state legislator, and a one-term member of the United States House of Representatives, but failed in two attempts at a seat in the United States Senate. A great orator, his 1863 Gettysburg Address has become the most quoted speech in American history.
- Belva Lockwood (1830-1917) because the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. She also successfully lobbied for a bill to provide female federal employees the same pay as men. Denied entry into law school because she was a woman, Belva Lockwood studied privately with a member of the administration of the National University Law School and earned a law degree in 1873. In one of her most famous cases, she appeared in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of the Cherokee people regarding money owed to them from the U.S. government. In 1906, Lockwood won a $5 million award for her clients. At the time, she also was the only woman who was a candidate for the U.S. Presidency.
- George Washington Williams (1849-1891) was a pastor, an attorney, and a legislator who made history as the first African-American to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives. The son of a laborer, Williams enlisted at age 14 in the Union Army and fought in the American Civil War. He was ordained as a minister in 1874, then he moved to Cincinnati to study law. Williams is best known, however, for his book, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, published in 1882. There had been several works written on this subject by black historians, but Williams’ work was the first account that strove for historical accuracy. Williams’ research for his next work, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion (1888), involved the gathering of oral histories from black Civil War veterans and the culling of newspaper accounts, both techniques which subsequently became basic resources in American historiography.
- Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) became a member of the Ohio bar in 1878. For the next nine years he was a typical small-town lawyer. However, in 1887 Darrow moved to Chicago in search of more interesting work. In 1924, he agreed to take the Leopold-Loeb case, where two wealthy students had kidnapped and murdered a young boy. Darrow’s most famous case was in 1925, when he defended John T. Scopes, a teacher accused of teaching the evolutionary origin of man, rather than the doctrine of divine creation (informally known as the Scopes Monkey Trial). His main opponent in the case was the former presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who believed the literal interpretation of the Bible. Darrow asked the court to find Scopes guilty — a move that would allow a higher court to consider an appeal. The verdict was returned as guilty after nine minutes of deliberation, but Darrow died six days later in his sleep.
- Samuel Liebowitz (1893-1978) was a criminal defense attorney, famously noted for winning the vast majority of his cases. Although most of his trials were notorious, his most memorable work came as counsel for the Scottsboro Boys, nine Southern African-American youths who were falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death in Alabama in 1931. No crime in American history — let alone a crime that never occurred — produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials over the course of two decades. Liebowitz became obsessed with his defense to the point where he worked for four years on the cases without pay or reimbursement for most of his expenses. After taking the case to the Supreme Court, the defendants’ convictions were reversed in Norris v. Alabama, a decision that Leibowitz called a “triumph for American justice.”
- Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was a lawyer, this country’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, and the legal architect of the civil-rights revolution. The great-grandson of a slave, Marshall won his first major civil rights case, Murray v. Pearson, in 1936. This was the first challenge of the “separate but equal” doctrine that was part of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision created in 1896. But, Marshall may be best remembered for his high success rate in arguing before the Supreme Court and for the victory in Brown v. Board of Education. He argued more cases before the United States Supreme Court than anyone else in history. Numerous memorials are dedicated to Justice Marshall. One, an eight-foot statute, stands in Lawyers Mall adjacent to the Maryland State House. The statute, dedicated on October 22, 1996, depicts Marshall as a young lawyer and it is placed just a few feet away from where the Old Maryland Supreme Court Building stood — the court where Marshall had argued discrimination cases leading up to the Brown decision.
- Bella Abzug (1920-1998) applied to Harvard Law School, but they rejected her because of her gender. After graduating from Columbia University’s law school, Bella Abzug worked as a lawyer for a number of years. In the 1960s, she became involved the antinuclear and peace movements. Abzug helped organize the Women Strike for Peace in 1961. To promote women’s issues and to lobby for reform, she helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus with leading feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Known for her big hats and an even bigger voice, Bella Abzug left her mark on U.S. politics as a women’s rights champion and determined antiwar activist.
- Michelle Obama (1964 – ) attended Princeton University and went on to earn her JD from Harvard Law School in 1988. Michelle worked as an associate in the Chicago branch of the law firm Sidley Austin in the area of marketing and intellectual property. There in 1989, she met her future husband, current President Barack Obama, who was then a summer intern whom she was assigned as an adviser. Michelle soon left her job to launch a career in public service, serving as an assistant to Mayor Daley and then as the assistant commissioner of planning and development for the City of Chicago. In May 2005, she was appointed vice president of community relations and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she continues to work part-time. Along with her participation in many public offices (she sits on six boards, including the prestigious Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools), Michelle currently serves as this country’s first African-American First Lady.