Justice  /  Book Excerpt

The Legal Mind of Constance Baker Motley

The story of Motley's legal career prior to Brown v. Board, and her crucial participation in it.

Constance Baker Motley had played an integral role on the legal team responsible for the landmark victory. As the five school cases wound through the federal courts and on up to the Supreme Court, she conducted invaluable legal research and helped write the legal pleadings and briefs needed to move the cases forward. In 1950, after the Court had paved the way for Brown by ordering the admission of a Black man to the flagship University of Texas School of Law who had been shunted off to a purportedly “separate but equal” Black law school (Sweatt v. Painter), Motley had drafted a blueprint for the coming frontal assault on segregation. She wrote and distributed to NAACP-affiliated counsel a model complaint—the critically impor­tant document that instigates a lawsuit and, if well done, survives defendants’ efforts to get the case thrown out of court. The complaint Motley drafted set forth the facts and the law that explained why seg­regation violated the Constitution and why the Inc. Fund’s clients were entitled to a remedy (in this case, a desegregated school). Thus, when lawyers in Kansas and in the other Brown cases filed claims attacking school segregation, they were building on Motley’s intel­lectual handiwork.

Following the Supreme Court’s request for re-argument in the five Brown cases in 1953, Marshall and [Robert L.] Carter assigned Motley to another vital task. They asked her to review legal cases relating to the scope of congressional and judicial power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment— a decisive issue that the justices touched upon during oral argument in the Brown cases. Could the framers have authorized desegregation of the schools, something then unheard of, through the open-ended language of the Fourteenth Amendment? The Inc. Fund hoped to convince the justices that even if Congress had not intended in the Fourteenth Amendment to end school segregation, the Constitution authorized the Court to interpret the amendment in that manner. Motley’s legal research provided support for the Inc. Fund’s contention. She also proofread the briefs—“nightmare” work that she, “the girl in the office,” “endured,” she recalled. In view of her many contributions to the Brown litigation, the organization’s briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court credited Constance Baker Motley as “of counsel.” In a long list of over a dozen attorneys whose names appeared on the briefs, her name stood out: she was the only woman in the illustrious group.1