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Barbera leads dedication of Thurgood Marshall law library

The formal portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The formal portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s top judge issued an order, of sorts, to the judges, lawyers and legislators who attended a ceremony Thursday afternoon celebrating the renaming of the state’s law library in memory of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native and the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice.

“The doors of justice open wide to all,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said.

“Our challenge … is to honor our commitment to one another,” she added during the nearly hourlong event in the Court of Appeals courtroom. “Justice Marshall showed us how. Now it’s our turn.”

The library, on the first floor of the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building, was renamed the Maryland Thurgood Marshall State Law Library on July 1 under a law enacted this year. Barbera, who regularly invokes Marshall’s name as a guiding light when swearing in new attorneys, lobbied for the legislation.

Former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the first African American to be the state’s top jurist, called Marshall “a formidable and transformative figure in the legal history of this country” whose equal protection arguments convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to deem unconstitutional racial segregation in public schools and other public accommodations.

Bell was a former client of Marshall’s.

Marshall argued unsuccessfully before the Maryland Court of Appeals on behalf of Bell and his fellow black Dunbar High School students who had been convicted of trespassing in the early 1960s after they refused to leave Hooper’s Restaurant in Baltimore when they were denied service because of their race. The U.S. Supreme Court later vacated the convictions in light of Maryland’s subsequently enacted public accommodations law.

“Thurgood Marshall moved this country closer to that more perfect union,” Bell told ceremony attendees.

The Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis is home to the newly-renamed Thurgood Marshall law library. (The Daily Record / Steve Lash)

The Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis is home to the newly renamed Thurgood Marshall law library. (The Daily Record / Steve Lash)

Marshall biographer Larry Gibson said his 20 years of researching the former justice revealed an “impatient, confident and optimistic” advocate who had a commanding presence and whose cases “shaped and reshaped American law” for the better in the areas of due process, equal protection and free speech.

“One knew when Thurgood Marshall was in the room,” said Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor and author of “Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice.”

Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Michele D. Hotten equated Marshall’s skills as an attorney to a painter approaching a canvas, a musician “inspired by a pattern of notes” and an architect.

Marshall’s goal was “to right a wrong in the interest of justice,” Hotten said. “He envisioned the U.S. Constitution as the blueprint.”

Hotten chairs the Harry A. Cole Judicial Council, named in memory of the first African American judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals.

“Justice Marshall set high standards,” Hotten said. “Justice was more than a concept.”

Steven Anderson, the law library’s director, said the facility in the 1920s and 1930s would call on visitors to sign in. One entry in the early 1930s was a young Baltimore attorney named Thurgood Marshall.

Davidson said he imagines Marshall came to the library “as he strategized a path toward equality.”

Marshall died in 1993 at age 84.

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