Sr. Judge Constance Baker Motley
Judge Jane Bolin
Atty. Jane Bolin
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Two Black Judges – pioneers who paved the way for women
Judge Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker was born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut to Rachel and Willoughby Baker, who were from the Caribbean island of Nevis. She was the ninth of 12 children.
Young Constance was one of the few Black students in her elementary and high school in segregated New Haven, and her knowledge of Black history was learned through lectures by a Black minister in a local Episcopal church. Her early interest was in interior decorating, but after high school, she changed to a career in law.
After high school, she worked as a domestic to help pay for her college tuition, then accepted a job with the National Youth Administration in New Haven. She started at Fisk University where her interaction with other Blacks taught her invaluable lessons about the effects of segregation. She believed that many of her Black classmates were not interested in being successful in the “white world.” In 1942, she transferred to Washington Square College in New York, where she received her bachelor’s degree in economics. She then went to Columbia Law School where she met Thurgood Marshall who, at the time, was legal counsel for the NAACP. She graduated in 1946 and began her legal career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). She entered private practice in New York City as a member of the law firm of Perlman, Motley and Bronheim. In 1949, she married Joel Wilson Motley.
As associate counsel of LDF – its principal trial attorney – she won many difficult civil rights cases and participated in most of the important civil rights cases during that era, including Brown v Board of Education. As a young lawyer, Motley represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and played a pivotal role in the nation’s civil rights struggle. She won several cases before the United States Supreme Court; her most important victory was the case of James Meredith against the University of Mississippi in Meredith v Fair in 1962. She was lead counsel in forcing integration of that university. (Meredith went on to complete his degree and later on led demonstrations for voter registration).
In 1964, Motley became the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate; and in 1965, she was the first woman to serve as president of New York City Borough. While working in that capacity, Motley developed a plan to revitalize the inner city and to improve housing and inner-city schools. President Johnson appointed her as United States District Court Judge for the southern district of New York in 1966. This was the largest federal trial court district in the U.S. and it was a lifetime appointment. It made Motley the first Black woman to be appointed a federal judge. Although the appointment was opposed by southern conservatives in the Senate, she was eventually confirmed. She became chief judge in 1982 and senior judge four years later.
In addition to numerous awards and honorary degrees recognizing her contributions to civil rights and the legal profession, Motley was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law, was published in 1998. She remained as a senior judge until her death in 2005.
Judge Jane M. Bolin
When Jane Bolin was born, there was a hereditary belief that she would become an attorney; that she eventually became was an added bonus. Her father, Gaius Charles Bolin, was an attorney, the first Black to graduate from Williams College. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on April 11, 1908, she was the youngest of four siblings. Her mother Matilda Emery Bolin (a White Englishwoman) died when she was eight years old, so she grew up with her father and followed his footsteps into the legal field.
Bolin received her early education including high school in Poughkeepsie before going to Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she was one of two Black students in her class. Most of the White students ignored her, and she lived off campus with the other Black student. At that time race played an overt part in all aspects of life for a Black person – even a light-skinned one. Her careers adviser at Wellesley tried to discourage her from applying to attend Yale Law School due to her race and gender.
That did not dissuade her and she graduated in 1928 in the top 20 in her class, and proceeded to Yale Law School, where she was the only Black student, and one of only three women. In 1931, she was the first Black woman to receive a law degree from Yale. The following year, she passed the New York state bar examination and joined her father in his law office in Poughkeepsie. After a brief period, she got married to Ralph E. Mizelle, an attorney and began practicing with him. However, she retained her maiden name, “Bolin,” in public.
In 1936, she ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly as the Republican candidate in the seventeenth district. Then she joined the New York City Bar Association and became the first to join the city’s legal department, serving as Assistant Corporation Counsel. Bolin became the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the United States when, at age 31, she was appointed to the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939 by the Mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, at the New York World’s Fair.
The Domestic Relations Court was renamed the Family Court and Judge Bolin remained a judge of the court for 40 years. She was reappointed by succeeding mayors three times, until she reached the require retirement age of 70. While on the bench, she worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion, and that publicly-funded childcare agencies accepted children without regard to ethnic background.
In January 1979, when Judge Bolin reluctantly retired, Judge Constance Baker Motley, her colleague on the federal bench, called her a role model. In her farewell speech, Judge Motley said, “When I thereafter met you, I then knew how a lady judge should comport herself.”
The “lady judge” was frequently in the news at the time of her appointment with accounts of her regal bearing, fashionable hats and pearls. But her achievements transcended being a shining example. As a family court judge, she led by example.
Bolin had one son, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, from her first marriage in 1941. Two years later, her husband died; she re-married her second husband, the Rev. Walter P. Offutt Jr., in 1950. He died in 1974.
As an activist for children’s rights and education, Bolin served on the boards of the NAACP, the Child Welfare League, and the National Urban League. She received honorary degrees from Tuskegee Institute, Williams College, Hampton University, Western College for Women and Morgan State University, and after retiring in 1979, Bolin served on the New York State Board of Regents.
She died in 2007 in Queens, New York, and was survived by her son, Yorke.