Bio of Robinson

Spottswood William Robinson III grew up in relative affluence in segregated Richmond. Born in 1916, son of one of the city’s few African American attorneys, he attended Virginia Union University and then—at his father’s urging—enrolled in the Class of 1939 at Howard Law School. He was reputed to have graduated with the highest grade point average then on record.

Joining the law school faculty, Robinson soon emerged as an intimate of Charles Hamilton Houston, who was mounting a fierce assault against legal covenants blocking home sales to blacks. That work caught the eye of the NAACP hierarchy, and in short order Robinson had emerged as a valued member of a select group charting the legal demise of Jim Crow. In 1944 he initiated Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, which—more than a decade before Rosa Park’s more celebrated victory—produced a Supreme Court ban on state laws requiring Jim Crow seating in interstate transportation. He joined Houston and others in torpedoing restrictive housing covenants in the landmark cases of Hurd v. Hodge and McGhee v. Sipes. And after conducting a year-long study of public education in Virginia at Marshall’s request, Robinson—along with Hill—filed a series of lawsuits exposing the absurdity of Virginia’s claim to provide black children an education equal to that of whites. Those cases proved to be an essential underpinning for the legal assault in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

When the five cases that formed Brown (including Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, filed by Robinson and Hill) reached the Supreme Court, Marshall assigned Robinson the weighty task of perfecting the pleadings. And when the lawyers appeared in three grueling hearings before the Supreme Court in the cases between 1952 and 1955, Robinson stood at Marshall’s side, mounting the Virginia arguments. 

Intellectually gifted, tireless, and meticulous Robinson spent the last quarter century of his career on federal courts in the District of Columbia. He was the second black man ever to serve as chief judge of one of the nation’s eleven circuits. He died of a heart attack in 1998 at age 82.

Robinson as a member of the Howard University School of Law faculty. (Scurlock Studio Records, Smithsonian Institution)

Robinson sits, as chief judge, with the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, 1982-83 term.  Prominent jurists Robert H. Bork, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Antonin Scalia are in the second row. (US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit)

“I have never met a judge who has shown more integrity in his or her work, offered greater commitment to our system of justice, or donned judicial robes with greater dignity. Nor have I ever met a more decent and gracious person.”


– Harry T. Edwards,

chief judge emeritus of the

United States Court of Appeals

for the Washington D. C. Circuit

© 2019 by Margaret Edds