Brown II Through the Eyes of a Supreme Court Clerk

While a number of UVA Law alums have served as clerks in all levels of the judiciary, it is probably a good guess most were not thinking about the documents they generated in their clerkships as providing insight for future scholars into the inner workings of the court. The work clerks do, however, has an effect on jurisprudence as they help their justices research, form positions, and draft opinions that may have a lasting impact. The final product created by the court, the opinion, often obscures the amount of work that was dedicated to creating the document. The University of Virginia Law Library’s Special Collection is fortunate to have the Prettyman Papers, which provides a peek into the behind-the-scenes work done by the United States Supreme Court on the seminal Brown v. Board of Education cases.

E. Barrett Prettyman graduated from the law school in 1953 and served as a law clerk to Justice Robert H. Jackson, and upon Justice Jackson’s death he clerked for Justice Felix Frankfurter. The Brown v. Board of Education cases were a vital part of the Court’s agenda during Prettyman’s clerkships. The archival papers in the library’s Special Collections provide access to the justices’ debates and dialogues as they grappled with how much they would require of the states to end segregation and how quickly they would ask the states to meet those requirements. The Prettyman Papers show the amount of research the law clerks did to help inform the justices on disparate issues involved with the cases, and the papers also highlight the role the clerks played in informing the dialogue between the justices. While the Brown II decision, which implemented the Court’s decision in Brown I, was unanimous, the documents show how much work was needed to bring about unanimity.

UVA Law Professor Risa Goluboff provides insight into the importance of the Brown v. Board of Education decisions and the wealth of information available on the Brown II case from the Prettyman papers. The Prettyman Papers, which are available in the library’s Special Collections and have been digitized on the library’s Special Collections website, highlight the important role of the clerks and provide insight into the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of the Supreme Court, and are a fascinating example of the scope of materials to be found in the library’s manuscript collections.

– Leslie Ashbrook 

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Leslie Ashbrook

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