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Prominent lawyer had 'profound effect' on civil rights law

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — James Nabrit III, a civil rights lawyer who argued several prominent cases involving education and free speech before the Supreme Court from the 1960s to the 1980s, has died at 80.

He had lung cancer, said Elaine Jones, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where Nabrit worked for 30 years.

Nabrit, whose father was a leading civil rights lawyer who served as president of Howard University, died March 22 in Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court on such fundamental issues as education, free speech and access to public accommodations.

His most noteworthy case may have been Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver (1973). It was the first school desegregation case to reach the Supreme Court from a state that did not have segregation laws.

The Supreme Court agreed with Nabrit's argument that de facto segregation in Denver left minority students with inferior facilities and staff members, denying students equal opportunity to a good education.

“He really was one of the greatest lawyers in the civil rights movement,” Ted Shaw, a former president and director general of the Legal Defense Fund, said on Tuesday. “Jim was part of the backbone of the legal team that defended civil rights and was partly responsible for bringing civil rights law out of the darkness. He had a profound effect on the law.”

In 1959, Nabrit was hired at the Legal Defense Fund by Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 became the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Nabrit recalled working on cases with Marshall in Louisiana, where a guard was stationed outside their room at night with a shotgun.

Nabrit handled several sit-in cases in which black college students were denied service in restaurants and other public accommodations in the 1960s. He worked on school discrimination cases in Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as death penalty cases in Alabama, Florida and other states.

“The Supreme Court was ahead of the other branches of government in opposing discrimination,” Nabrit said in a 2001 interview with Washington Lawyer magazine. “President Eisenhower and President Kennedy both supported some aspects of civil rights legislation, but the court was the leading institution.”

In 1965, after filing a lawsuit on behalf of civil rights leader Hosea Williams, Nabrit and LDF President Jack Greenberg wrote a plan approved by a federal judge that allowed the Selma-to-Montgomery march, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to go ahead.

Nabrit worked on the Supreme Court appeal of a case from Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 in which King and other marchers were jailed after they were denied permission to stage a march. While incarcerated, King wrote his celebrated “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

“There are a lot of people who are heroes whose names are well-known,” Jones, who was president of the Legal Defense Fund from 1993 to 2004, said on Tuesday. “Jim Nabrit is one of those unsung heroes whose names were not known. The heroes we know of depended on his advice.”

Nabrit graduated from Yale Law School in 1955. He served in the Army and practiced in Washington before joining the Legal Defense Fund.

“If there were such a thing as civil rights royalty,” Shaw said, “Jim would be a prince.”

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