Back in 2017, I wrote a post (link here) I entitled, “Why is the Third Circuit’s courthouse named for James Byrne?” The gist was that Byrne was an obscure Democratic member of Congress, that other circuit courthouses were named for more distinguished figures like Supreme Court justices and legendary circuit judges, and that there was ample precedent for renaming circuit courthouses, so renaming the Third Circuit’s courthouse was “worth considering.”
In my post, I offered up a quick list of nine folks for whom the courthouse could be renamed. Listed alphabetically, they were: Ruggero Aldisert, Edward Becker, William Brennan, William Hastie, Leon Higginbotham, Collins Seitz, Delores Sloviter, Arlen Specter, and James Wilson.
A recent discussion on Twitter got me going about this again and, a year and a half after my original post, I’ve got some more concrete views on renaming the Third Circuit courthouse.
This is worth doing. The name of the circuit courthouse really matters, and not just to nerdy Third Circuit diehards like us. For judges, we don’t create national holidays or build monuments in D.C., we name courthouses, but the civic purpose is the same and it’s not really about paying tribute to great individuals. Deciding who to name a courthouse after is a statement of our values. It is how we express, to ourselves and to future generations, our deepest aspirations for the role the law can play in strengthening our nation. The current name does not fulfill that purpose.
Of the nine candidates I brainstormed in my original post, I believe the choice boils down to two: Edward Becker or William Hastie. Either would be magnificent.
Becker is a giant of the modern federal judiciary, the judge who more than any other led the way to solving the great legal puzzle of our time, how to provide fair compensation for the millions of persons exposed to asbestos. He served on the Third Circuit for a quarter-century (five years as its chief) until his death in 2006. Today Becker is well-nigh universally beloved in the circuit. In this dark time of political polarization and judicial politicization, he is a bright beacon on the path back.
Hastie may be less vivid in our memory today, but he is unsurpassed in the Third Circuit’s history. Hastie was a pathbreaker—the first African American federal judge when he was appointed by FDR to the District of the Virgin Islands in 1937, the first African American circuit judge when he was appointed by Truman to the Third Circuit in 1949, and the first African American chief judge of a circuit starting in 1968. And Hastie was impactful before ever joining the bench, a leading civil rights advocate who with his former student Thurgood Marshall won the landmark Smith v. Allwright white-primaries case before the Supreme Court in 1944. He was a top candidate for the Supreme Court seat filled by Byron White (Earl Warren opposed Hastie for being “not a liberal”). At Hastie’s funeral, Chief Justice Warren Burger said, “In a court that has always included some of the outstanding members of the American judiciary”—preach!—”he was second to none.”
In my original post, I said my vote would be for Becker, but on reflection I don’t favor either over the other. Becker and Hastie aren’t the only strong candidates—compelling cases also could be made for Brennan and Higginbotham, too—but in my view they’re the two strongest. And I’m hardly original in reaching that conclusion: in the current courthouse, the lobby is named for Becker and the library for Hastie.
So, in the end, I can’t say whether it should be renamed for Becker or Hastie. I just know it should be renamed.