One of the legal giants in American history is Charles Hamilton Houston. To modern lawyers he is still obscure, but some recognition of his extraordinary legal talent came during the nation's celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Although Houston died over four years before the Supreme Court issued its historic opinion in Brown, he was widely recognized as the architect of that decision, which banned segregation in public school education. Prior to his death, Houston had worked on litigation to eradicate segregation in education since the early 1930's. Houston's first major victory in this effort was in Pearson v. Murray, when he, along with Thurgood Marshall and William I. Gosnell, successfully challenged the racial exclusion policy at the University of Maryland School of Law. The Pearson case was also the first major victory in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) legal assault on "Jim Crow."
The legal significance of Houston's civil rights work, however, has obscured his impact on other areas of the law. This is particularly true with regard to his impact on the criminal justice system. During his remarkable career that spanned only about a quarter century, Houston engaged in litigation that still affects some of the most important areas of criminal justice in the nation. This article is an effort to identify a few of those major areas and recognize Houston's rightful place among the criminal justice legends of the twentieth century.
His impact on the law of jury selection, capital punishment, right to counsel, police interrogation and mental state defenses have set the standard for the most important criminal justice jurisprudence in the nation's courts. Although he was not the first lawyer to address these important issues, he certainly had as great an impact on their development as he did on the civil rights work which has been the most visible part of his legacy.
In his brief career his criminal law case choices reflected his profound concern for the criminally accused. Further, his selection of controversial issues, difficult cases and visionary strategies foreshadowed both the modern criminal justice landscape and laid out the battle ground for current criminal justice disputes. Houston's work defies easy categorization. While he was obviously concerned with equal protection under the law involving issues of race he also embraced structures which provided more general fairness in criminal law.
From examining Houston's criminal law work in all criminal cases that either resulted in or were appeals from reported cases, I have concluded that there are several important characteristics that suggest when Houston would invest his time and talent in a criminal case. It was not simply a question of fame or assignment and certainly not money.
Rather, Houston selected extremely difficulty criminal cases to test the system and advance important principles of fairness and justice that he determined to be worthwhile. In the same manner that he approached his systematic Jim Crow strategy, he also attacked the criminal justice system with vigor and passion.The principles that motivated Houston's choice of criminal justice issues and cases are when one or more of the following circumstances existed:
(1) Penalty was severe without adequate process;
(2) Panel of the jury included no African-Americans;
(3) Proof of the criminal case without sufficient integrity of the fact finding process;
(4) Police procedures executed without adequate accountability in obtaining confessions; and when the
(5) Purpose of the prosecution lacked adequate structural limitations.
Photo: Charles Hamilton Houston.