A passion for achieving racial equality had already taken hold of Howard University Law School when student Spottswood W. Robinson III of Richmond arrived in 1936 at the age of 20. It didn't take long for the spirit to take hold of Robinson, too.
"The turning point in my life," says Robinson, "was the day I put my foot in there."
He found an idol -- Charles Hamilton Houston, a pioneering black lawyer who was building Howard into a think tank for civil rights law. Robinson studied incessantly, developing a passion for detailed research that would later be indispensable in documenting arguemnts for landmark civil rights cases. Three years later, he was graduated with the highest academic average in the history of the law school. The fire still burned.
He helped to argue the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case before the U.S. Spreme Court. He became the first black appointed to the U.S. District Court and the first black named to the U.S. Appeals Court here.
Earlier this month, Robinson, 64, a self-effacing man with a penchant for detail and order, became chief judge of the appeals court -- the powerful curt once dominated by former Chief Judge David L. Bazelon and the court that some consider second in importance only to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Robinson's ascension to the chief judgeship also marked the first time that all four local and federal courts in Washington, whose population is 70 percent black, are headed by blacks -- H. Carl Moultrie I in D.C. Superior Court, Theodore R. Newman Jr. in the D.C. Court of Appeals, William B. Bryant in the U.S. District Court and Robinson.
That later point does not faze Robinson; he says. "I was conscious of the fact . . . but it was just a passing thought. It doesn't mean anything except that it just marks a point in black achievement."
Others are less modest. "It's a belated occurrence which reflects many years of social prejudice and discrimination which we're growing out of," said Charles T. Duncan, who was dean of Howard Law School from 1974 to 1977. "It also says something about how long it takes for things to happen once you remove the barriers."
For Karen Hastie Williams, a former Robinson law clerk whose father the late William Henry Hastie, was the first black to become chief judge of a federal appeals court, the occassion "says that the bench in Washington . . . is reflecting the advancement of black lawyers throughout the country."
Robinson began early in his student days to establish a reputation of hard work. He "was probably the most serious professional student i'd ever seen," recalled U.S. District Court Chief Judge William B. Bryant, who graduated from Howard Law this year Robinson arrived. "All the time I ever saw him he was working, either in the law library or in his own room. He burned some midnight oil."
When he finished Howard in 1939, Robinson returned to Richmond, where he expected to begin a quiet career practicing law with his father, who was also a lawyer and ran a successful real estate business. But he stayed only briefly, returning to Howard to work on civil rights cases.
"He had something in him that told him that he had to get into the center of this, where he could put his ideas into effect," recalled James M. Nabrit Jr., who had been one of Robinson's teachers and who had set up the first civil rights classes at the law school.
Robinson taught at Howard, worked with Charles Houston from 1940 to 1947 and moved into the front line of civil rights battles in Virginia through a firm he confounded in 1943, Hill & Robinson in Richmond.
Robinson and Oliver W. Hill another product of Houston and Howard Law, logged thousands of miles traveling to courthouses from Arlington to Charlottesville for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Robinson recalls that he always took his lunch with him on those trips because a black lawyer used to have a hard time finding a place to eat in rural Virginia.
Robinson returned to Howard in 1960 and became dean of the law school. A year later he also was named a member of President Kennedy's Commission on Civil Rights despite objections from southern Democrats led by Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.).
In 1964, he was sworn in as the first black member of the U.S. District Court here. Two years later, nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Robinson became the first black on the federal court of appeals. b
The years haven't changed him, Robinson said during an interview, in a voice touched with an aristocratic Richmond drawl. "I think it's fair to say insofar as my philosophies and my work habits, I haven't changed much since law school," he said.
He still can be seen coming to work lugging satchels of legal material from his car after he has worked at home. When fatigue catches up with him, as he admits it sometimes does, Robinson will take a nap on the rust-colored couch in his chambers. "Usually 30 minutes will do it," he said.
Outside the court, Robinson has other accomplishments. He points with modest pride to a snapshot on his desk of the split-level house in Richmond that he designed himself and watched over as his own general contractor.
He is an accomplished woodworker, from small toys he used to make for his grandson to door frames. He was a precision tennis player, on courts in Richmond where tennis pro Arthur Ashe's father used to teach and at Howard, where he played with William Hastie.
An avid fisherman, he built a boat in the basement of his house, which he called the "Nina Mae," after his wife Marian and daughter, Nina. He launched it in 1953 and had to pull it out of the water for good in 1978.
A warm and self-effacing man, whose friends call him "Spots," Robinson has been known to pursue his obsession with order and detail to the bitter end, according to D.C. City Council member John Ray, who was a law clerk for Robinson in 1973-74.
At one point in July 1974, Ray and Robinson were working late in the courthouse several days after two inmates had taken control of the courthouse cellblock. Shots rang out.
Robinson called out, "We've got to get out of here," Ray said. But first Robinson had to go through his nightly departure ritual.
He cleared off his desk and put his pipe rack and ashtray neatly back in place. He flushed the bathroom toilet to make sure it didn't overflow overnight. He locked the cabinets and the chamber doors.But when he and Ray got to the elevator, Robinson was nevertheless dismayed.
"John, I forgot to check if all the doors were locked," he said. Ray went back and checked.
As he did during his days at Howard Law, Robinson is still taking kiding about his passion for legal citations -- footnotes -- that fill, and some say overburden, his written opinions. Ray was Robinson's law clerk when they set the record for footnotes in the federal court -- 403 in a 43-page legal opinion.
"The footnotes syndrome in my view is a result of those civil rights days," Ray said. When a black lawyer stood up before a white jury and a white judge, he needed all the law he could get his hands on to back him up, Ray said.
The chief judgeship is based on seniroity, going to the judge with the longest service on the court who has not yet reached the age of 70, the maximum age for the chief judge. Robinson replaced Carl McGowan on May 7. m
As the chief judge of the court, Robinson will assume additional administrative duties, including managing the court caseload and monitoring its operations.
Lawyers say that Robinson is a good judge but complain that he is a painfully slow worker. He gives cases before him "a fair shake beyond all belief. He shakes things so long they sometimes never come out," one lawyer said about Robinson's reputation for long-awaited opinions.
"A lot of people somehow get the impression that he's a slow worker merely because he does not quickly turn over an opinion after an argument," said Cheryl M. Long, a former Robinson clerk who is now an assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington.
"He really believes in taking cases in the chronological order that they come in front of him," long said. "Everybody gets in line. Everybody takes their turn."
"I was taught to approach everything and get it done conscientiously and thoroughly. I really don't know of any other way to deal with it. It is just as easy to do it the right way as any other way," Robinson said in an interview.