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Counsel for the Situation

Shaping the Law to Realize America's Promise

with Donald T. Bliss. William T. Coleman

Publication Year: 2010

"Bill Coleman's story is one that younger generations should mark and inwardly digest, lest they forget the pioneers who helped to make a better America possible." —From the Foreword by Stephen G. Breyer

William Coleman has spent a lifetime opening doors and breaking down barriers. He has been an eyewitness to history; moreover, he has made history. This is his inspiring story, in his own words.

Americans of color faced daunting barriers in the 1940s. Despite graduating first in his class at Harvard Law and clerking for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Coleman was shut out of major East Coast law firms. But as the Philadelphia native writes, "The times, they were a'changing." He not only benefited from that change —he helped propel it, by way of dogged determination, undeniable intellect, and stellar accomplishment.

Coleman's legal work with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund helped jumpstart the civil rights movement in the 1950s. He was the first American of color to clerk for the Supreme Court, and later served as senior counsel to the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In 1975 he was appointed secretary of transportation by President Gerald Ford —the first American of color to serve in a Republican cabinet —and in 1995 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton.

At his core, Bill Coleman is a lawyer. He strives to be a "counsel for the situation" —an advocate able to take on major matters in a variety of legal disciplines while upholding the highest traditions of justice and the public interest. He is fiercely proud of the legal profession's role in a democratic society and free economy, and he is grateful for the opportunities that profession has afforded him in the court room, the board room, and the corridors of power. It is through this prism that he relates his own story —his life and the law.

The results speak for themselves, and in this immensely entertaining chronicle, the Counsel for the Situation speaks for himself.

Published by: Brookings Institution Press

Front Cover

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Copyright Information

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-ix

When Bill Coleman tried out for the swim team at his Philadelphia high school, the school eliminated the team rather than risk racial integration. That is the world in which Bill grew up. And that is the world that Bill Coleman helped to change. He did so directly when called upon for help by Thurgood Marshall. And he did so indirectly through the power of...

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Prologue: Achieving the American Dream as Counsel for the Situation

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pp. xi-xiv

At some point each of us enters the stream of history. We have no control over the time or place, or the sandbars, boulders, or floating obstructions we may confront along the way. I entered the stream on July 7, 1920. I began to chart a course through most of a transitional century, a time unique in the annals of American and world history. This was the century in which a ...

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Mr. Coleman Goes to Washington

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pp. 1-4

One Thursday afternoon in late 1974, I was sitting in my law offices at the Dilworth firm in Philadelphia, preparing for a court hearing. My assistant buzzed me on the intercom: “It’s Mr. Donald Rumsfeld on the line.” ...

Part I: The Formative Years

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pp. 5

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pp. 7-14

“Someday, William, you will make a wonderful chauffeur.” My English teacher, Miss Egge, had intended to compliment the poised oral presentation that I, one of the four tenth-graders of color at Germantown High, then one of Philadelphia’s finest public high schools, had just given. ...

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Making Jewels Out of Rough Diamonds

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pp. 15-21

My father rejected the separate-but-equal doctrine, but he would probably have to admit that the Wissahickon Boys’ Club was without equal in the nation. Owing to the generosity of the Quakers and Father’s leadership, the club developed a physical plant and membership ...

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Home Sweet Home

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pp. 22-25

The Great Depression hit the nation in 1929 when I was nine years old. My dad’s workload greatly increased, and the Colemans always had food on the table, decent clothes on our backs, and a comfortable home. Dad worked with many families on relief, encouraged boys to join the federal Civilian Conservation Corps, and undertook additional charitable work. For example, he persuaded many of the Wissahickon Boys’...

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School Days

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pp. 26-29

In second grade, I was a difficult child. Much to the class’s enjoyment, I often would talk back disrespectfully to the teacher, who always was a woman. One day, while I was acting up, my classmates’ laughter ceased and silence pervaded the room. When I looked to the door, my father was standing there. He chastised me in front of the class, making ...

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Sibling Rivalries

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pp. 30-33

“Don’t you ever forget it, Bill. When you were buried in books in the school library, I was out on the front lines, fighting for civil rights in the old South.”...

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College Years

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pp. 34-39

When the lights went out and the Emlen campers were supposed to be asleep, serious talk began among the counselors. “Where do you want to go to college, Bill?” the senior counselor from Howard University asked me. “I was thinking about an Ivy League school, maybe Penn,” I responded. “You’re setting your sights pretty high, aren’t you?” he retorted. “I don’t want to sound too much like Booker T. Washington,” the ...

Part II: Learning to Be a Good Lawyer

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pp. 40

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Harvard Law School

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pp. 43-55

I climbed the few remaining steps from the Harvard Square subway and accompanied this chisel-faced young man with his swept-back hair and his crisp Boston Brahmin accent. We walked across the famous Harvard Yard, a place I had only seen in the movies or read about in books and magazines. His friendly manner and wry ...

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pp. 56-68

In cowardly fashion, I settled for the lesser but still obviously insulting question for a man of twenty-three. I told him where I was going. It was my first experience of southern racial intimidation, a valuable lesson for later years when we would be fighting racial discrimination in southern courts.....

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After the War

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pp. 69-72

Lovida and I had planned to return to Boston at the conclusion of my military service in November 1945 so I could complete my studies at Harvard Law School. The next semester did not begin until the end of January 1946. In the interim we returned to Philadelphia to live with my parents. I got a job working for Raymond Pace Alexander, undoubtedly the most prominent lawyer ...

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Clerking for the Good Judge

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pp. 73-77

“Have you lined up a job yet, Bill?” Elliot inquired. He had just been elected president of the Harvard Law Review, and we were chatting at its sixtieth anniversary dinner as Justice Felix Frankfurter walked by.....

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Justice Frankfurter

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pp. 78-86

My year with Justice Frankfurter (from September 1, 1948, to August 31, 1949) remains among the most meaningful and enjoyable of my life. Having greatly admired a legend from afar, I discovered, working with him daily for most of the year, that he was even more brilliant, caring, widely read, informed, witty, and, yes, demanding than I could ever have imagined. Each ...

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Life at the Supreme Court and in the Nation's Capital

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pp. 87-94

Verily, it is vastly better to yield to wisdom at last, than not Most mornings, Justice Frankfurter walked to work with Secretary of State Acheson from their homes in Georgetown to the old Executive Office Building, next to the White House, which then housed the Department of State.1 They would talk about the issues of the day. Often the justice, accord-...

Part III: New York, New York

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pp. 95

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From the Ivory Tower to the Working World

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pp. 97-104

Such is the nature of the human condition that life—like a roller coaster ride—can descend from high to low and back to high with rapid acceleration. As my clerkship was coming to an end, I returned on several occasions to my home town of Philadelphia in search of a job. ...

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American History in Black and White

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pp. 105-115

After I hung up the phone that December day, a surge of elation quickly yielded to trepidation. I had just been invited by Thurgood Marshall to a three-day summit of preeminent civil rights lawyers and legal scholars. We were going to plot a strategy to take our great nation to the next milestone in the struggle for equal rights for all Americans....

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Chipping Away at Plessy

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pp. 116-119

Charles Houston was the anchor and architect of the strategy—and his strategy yielded some significant successes in laying the foundation for a frontal attack on public school segregation. Houston was not only a brilliant strategist and mesmerizing advocate, ...

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The Brown Team

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pp. 120-126

In January 1950 I walked into the conference room of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., on West 40th Street in Manhattan. We sometimes called it the “Inc” Fund. Some faces were familiar and some were not, but over the next five years I came to know the most dedicated, energetic, and innovative group of people whom I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. Many went on to extraordinary ...

Part IV: A Philadelphia Lawyer

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pp. 127

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The City of Brotherly Love

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pp. 129-133

After a few pleasantries, he went on, “Bill, I know you have had an interest in practicing law in Philadelphia. I have just been elected Philadelphia district attorney and am looking for some bright young lawyers to assist me. Would you be willing to drop by my office at my law firm in the Fidelity building sometime next week to discuss employment in the district...

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Expert in Relevance

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pp. 134-142

The term Philadelphia lawyer has had several meanings through the years. In 1952 it meant a very competent counsel who is knowledgeable in the most minute aspects of the law and uses that knowledge in a shrewd and creative manner to benefit his or her ...

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The Tipping Point

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pp. 143-149

The Supreme Court scheduled the five school desegregation cases for argument on December 9, 1952. I spent many evenings and weekends and much of my vacation time in New York and Washington, working on the briefs and preparing Marshall, Carter, Robinson, Nabrit, Hayes, and Greenberg for oral argument. Neither my name nor that of Louis H. Pollak could be on the briefs filed in 1952. Former ...

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Reargument, December 7, 1953

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pp. 150-155

“Mr. Marshall,” I said to break the palpable tension, “you’re going to have to be as good as Toussaint L’Ouverture. If a colored slave could defeat Napoleon’s generals in Haiti, there is hope for us today.” ...

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With All Delibrate Speed

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pp. 156-160

According to published reports, Chief Justice Warren was convinced that a decision of the magnitude of the Brown cases required unanimity. He had worked hard to persuade his colleagues on the bench. The last holdout most probably was southern justice Stanley Reed, who intended to write a dissenting opinion. After several lunches during which Warren urged Reed to ...

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Enforcing the Court's Order

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pp. 161-167

A telephone call from Thurgood Marshall during the summer of 1958 ended any hope I had of an August vacation with my family in South Pomfret, Vermont. The federal district court in Arkansas had ordered that nine Negro plaintiffs be admitted to Central High School in Little Rock beginning the ...

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A Lawyer's Public Service Obligation

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pp. 168-182

One of the great benefits of practicing law in an enlightened law firm is the recognition by just about all of your partners of a lawyer’s continuing and compelling obligation to serve the public. As the nation increasingly recognized the value of diverse participation in addressing the challenges we faced at the local, state, and federal levels, I was offered...

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Managing the Dilworth Litigation Department

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pp. 183-192

Back at the Dilworth firm, I continued to be actively engaged in litigation and corporate matters. On February 12, 1962, Mayor Dilworth had resigned to run for governor of Pennsylvania. He was solidly defeated by William Scranton by more than half a million votes. Scranton, ...

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The Girard College Case

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pp. 193-198

Stephen Girard, a Philadelphia merchant and banker, was in 1813 the richest man in America. He had made his fortune in developing trade with China. When in 1811 Congress refused to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States, Girard purchased the bank’s nonfinancial assets. During the War of 1812 with Great Britain, he lent the U.S. Treasury more than $8 million, enabling the young nation to ...

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The Legacy of Houston-Hastie-Marshall

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pp. 199-204

After I had accepted Thurgood Marshall’s request in 1958 to become chairman of the board of directors of the LDF, I began to broaden my involvement in its multifaceted legal assault on racial discrimination, while remaining a full-time partner in the Dilworth firm. As the leading civil rights group dedicated to securing equal opportunity ...

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The Nixon Years

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pp. 205-209

Shortly after the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, I received a call from William Rogers, his secretary of state designee. President-elect Nixon had asked him to contact me and request that I come to Washington for a meeting. When I arrived at his office at the State Department, Rogers came right to the point. Nixon had ...

Part V: Serving in the Ford Cabinet

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pp. 211

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Change in Course

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pp. 213-219

My greatest ambition—the unrelenting career focus of my life since my sophomore year in college—was to be a successful practicing lawyer in an outstanding private law firm. I love the law, the courtroom clashes, the demands of anxious clients, the challenge of complex transactions, the resolution of conflicts through reason, and the income that a law practice can generate. But that world was about to change. In ...

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Cabinet-Style Government

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pp. 220-229

Having had the presidency suddenly thrust upon him, Ford spent the first six months assembling his own team, combining new faces with trusted veterans from the Nixon administration. Attending my first cabinet meeting in April 1975 was a thrill for me. In the historic cabinet room, I felt humbled by the examples of such awe-inspiring predecessors as Alexander Hamilton, ...

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Getting to Know the Department of Transportation

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pp. 230-244

Congress created the Department of Transportation on October 15, 1966, to bring together under one roof the disparate federal transportation programs and to develop a comprehensive, coordinated transportation policy. The department began operations on April 1, 1967, in President Johnson’s administration under the leadership of its first secretary, Alan S. Boyd. At the time of my arrival in June 1975, it ...

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Making Transportation Policy

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pp. 245-257

During the confirmation process several senators had pressed me on a particular issue: What was the Department of Transportation’s purpose? It had been in existence since 1966. Its enabling statute had expressly directed the secretary to develop a national transportation policy. Why? Congress created the department to coordinate the federal funding and regulation of transportation systems to promote safe, ...

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The Decisionmaking Process

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pp. 258-268

In the Ford administration, we were fully committed to restoring confidence and trust in the federal government as the nation healed from the Watergate trauma. Since my training and experience had been exclusively as a lawyer, the tools I brought ...

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A Time of Transition

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pp. 269-277

During my twenty-three months as secretary of transportation, my respect and admiration for President Ford grew immensely. His guileless style was the polar opposite of that of his two immediate predecessors. His calm, warm, engaging, self-assured personality was exactly what the nation needed. As a congressional leader, he was well versed in domestic and international affairs, an excellent judge of character. ...

Part VI: A Washington Lawyer

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pp. 279

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The Sun Also Rises in the East

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pp. 281-288

Since its founding in 1885, O’Melveny & Myers had been an integral part of the growth of Los Angeles from a sleepy Mexican town to the second-largest city in the United States. Over the decades O’Melveny had established an extraordinary reputation on the West Coast, representing the major California banks, IBM, Occidental Petroleum ...

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Building the Washington Practice

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pp. 289-299

Early in 1978 I got a call from Hank Nolte, general counsel for the Ford Motor Company. Nolte had been general counsel of Philco when I arranged a meeting with Attorney General Kennedy to discuss Ford’s acquisition of Philco. We also had worked together closely to negotiate an agreement as part of my air bags experiment when ...

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The Bob Jones Case

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pp. 300-308

On a late Friday afternoon in April 1982, my office telephone rang. When I picked up the phone the voice on the line said, “The chief justice of the United States, the Honorable Warren Burger, wishes to speak with you.” Was this a belated April fool’s joke? I decided ...

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Supreme Court Practice

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pp. 309-320

Having served in the executive branch and testified on many occasions before Congress, I would have to say that for a practicing lawyer, there is no experience more exhilarating than advocacy before the Supreme Court of the United States. I am far from an expert in antitrust law, natural gas regulation, public transit, constitutional law, the Internal Revenue Code, or even inter-...

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The Robert Bork Hearings

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pp. 321-334

On my return to the private sector, I was honored to be asked to resume a leadership role in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund as the co-chair of its board. The fund had had many successes in resuscitating the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments from decades of somnolence. It had fought hard to ensure the enforcement of a great deal of recently ...

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Is Race Still Relevant?

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pp. 335-341

President Kennedy’s observation is a self-evident truth, but a truth whose significance unfortunately has eluded many Americans for too many years. Even after the adoption of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Supreme Court in 1896 essentially endorsed a system of American-style ...

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Opportunities for Public Service

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pp. 342-354

One blustery day in early 1977 I got a call from Cy Vance, then secretary of state in President Carter’s administration. Cy told me that President Carter was very concerned about deteriorating relations with Latin America. While President Kennedy had made a noble effort to improve relations through the Alliance for Progress initiative, in ...

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Reflecting on Republicans and Race

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pp. 355-365

I have been a registered Republican for sixty-five years, and my father and his father before him were Republicans. Lovida’s father was a Republican in the best southern tradition. The Coleman and Hardin roots are firmly planted in the party of Lincoln. Indeed, I was born less than sixty years after Lincoln was elected president. So I tend....

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Counsel for the Situation

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pp. 366-376

Justice Brandeis described his legal practice before ascending to the Supreme Court as “counsel to the situation.” In his view, the lawyer was more than an adversarial advocate. The lawyer was a counselor, a negotiator, a problem solver who sought to advance the client’s objectives while ...

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pp. 377-378

Having represented Frank Sinatra at the request of my law school class-mate Mickey Rudin, I became a big fan of his music. Before Elvis and the Beatles, this skinny boy from New Jersey rose to the top of his profession. And he did it through sheer talent, persistence, and tenacity. He did it his own way. As his career was coming to a close, his still rich voice filled the concert ...

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pp. 379-380

It is impossible to mention all the people who have contributed to a book that reflects my life experience. I am grateful to my mother and father and extended family who taught me to have pride in my heritage as an American citizen and be resolute in my commitment to the equality of all human beings. Without the courage of national leaders who have opened doors for me and ...

Chronology of the Life of William T. Coleman Jr.

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pp. 381-387

Principal Cases Cited

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pp. 388-389


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pp. 390-396


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pp. 397-442


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pp. 443-466

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815704942
E-ISBN-10: 0815704941

Page Count: 450
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Lawyers -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Officials and employees -- Biography.
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