January 24, 2012

A little bit of history was made at 401 West Trade Street Friday, but Charlotte didn’t seem to notice much. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held a session of oral arguments at the federal courthouse here for the first time in more than 50 years. Lawyers and law students showed up in numbers to watch and note the event, but the rarity is not what struck me.

I sat in the gallery in the courtroom where Swann v. Board of Education – the seminal Charlotte school desegregation case – got its start. Overlooking the courtroom are eight large portraits of white male federal judges who have held court in the last 100 years. As best I can tell, in 140 years all of the federal district judges here have been white men. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

At 9:30 sharp, court began and the three appeals court justices walked in: Allyson Kay Duncan, an African American, Albert Diaz, a Hispanic American, and James A. Wynn, Jr., an African American.

I have been practicing in that courtroom for 17 years. For me, it was a jarring, surreal but welcome moment.