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VOL. 126 | NO. 169 | Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Racism Strengthened Birch’s Resolve to Excel in Law

By Bill Dries

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Funeral services for Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr. are Tuesday, Aug. 30, in Nashville.

“The decision to go to law school and become a lawyer was made long ago. I never, never wanted to be anything else. I never recall having wanted to be anything else or do anything else.”

–Adolpho A. Birch Jr.
Late Tennessee Supreme Court Justice

Birch will lie in state at the Metro Courthouse from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. with a 6 p.m. memorial service at War Memorial Auditorium in the capital.

Birch, Tennessee’s first African-American Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice, died Thursday, Aug. 25, in Nashville of cancer. He was 78.

Birch was a prominent figure in the Nashville legal community who became a statewide figure in 1993 when then Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him to the Tennessee Supreme Court. McWherter had also appointed Birch to the state appeals court before that.

“The decision to go to law schools and become a lawyer was made long ago,” Birch said toward the end of his life in a video interview archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project. “I never, never wanted to be anything else. I never recall having wanted to be anything else or do anything else. Racism or segregation as I saw it only increased my desire, hardened my resolve. But the initial desire was there in the first place.”

As a student at Howard University in Washington in the mid-1950s, Birch was able to watch Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys rehearse and prepare to argue the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1954 case ended racial segregation by law and was among the events that triggered the civil rights movement that followed.

Birch later cited the rehearsal and preparations as one of the highlights of his life.

He also recalled that after becoming an attorney, his first law office was a corner of a real estate office behind some filing cabinets. He maintained a private law practice while working as a prosecutor with the Nashville District Attorney General’s office, an office that he recalled was not racially segregated in its organization or in the assignment of prosecutors to handle certain cases.

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark noted Birch’s status as the only state judge to ever serve at every level of the legal system.

His fellow justices selected Birch as chief justice in 1996. He retired from the court in 2006 while battling pancreatic cancer.

Tennessee Bar Association President Danny Van Horn praised Birch for mentoring new attorneys and taking time to explain the different times and era that his legal career was grounded in.

“He stood astride the era of legal segregation, the bridge of civil rights action and the coming of a more just society,” Van Horn said in a written statement.

Birch also reminded many who would ask that the role of chief justice was not an ivory tower position. It was and remains today a balance of finances, scheduling and maintaining the role of the courts as a check and balance in the system of state government.

“You have to set the policy for the judicial system, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” he said. “You have to interact with the legislature to make sure that we, the judiciary, remain a separate and independent part of government.”

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