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    January 9, 2009  
 
 
The Timeless
Bill Coleman

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As the country marks a milestone of racial progress on January 20th, we sat down with a giant of the civil rights movement still going strong within the DC bar, Bill Coleman of O'Melveny & Myers. Hard to call someone an unsung hero when he's been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest nation's civilian award, and is one of two O'Melveny lawyers (with Warren Christopher), given a plaque in the firm's lobby, but Bill's career can't be celebrated too much.

 

A few highlights: Bill was the first African-American Supreme Court clerk (for Frankfurter in 1948); the lead strategist and co-author of the winning brief in Brown v. Board of Education; the third black Cabinet member (if you count, as Bill does, Alexander Hamilton—look it up, folks) as Transportation Secretary under President Ford; and a successful advocate in the 1983 Bob Jones Supreme Court case, which upheld 8-1 the revocation of the University's tax exempt status for its racially discriminatory dating and marriage policies. As a mark of respect others have for him, Bill argued that appeal at the invitation of the Court. (P.S. on our nomenclature: Bill prefers the term "man of color" to "African-American.")

 

A youthful 88, Bill is still working six days a week. We learned he was the first to discover, during MLK Jr.'s stay in a Birmingham jailhouse, that the statute being used didn't authorize his detention. This lead to a call for his release from the Legal Defense Fund, and then from JFK. Later, Bill turned down a nomination to the Third Circuit to better support his wife of 64 years, Lovida, and their three children. (He says he would have turned down a SCOTUS nomination, too.) His oldest, William, former GC of the Army, roomed with Bill Clinton during his 1L year at Yale.

 
Although Bill wasn't allowed to swim for his high school team, Harvard Law School admitted him ,and he excelled there, just five votes shy of becoming the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. (We know who eventually won that honor; he's being sworn in as President.) When he was Senior Counsel to the Warren Commission, Bill met President Ford, who later put him in his cabinet (near right above, 33 years ago). When President Ford died, Bill was one of his pallbearers.
 

Bill's civil rights work shouldn't overshadow that he has been a leading business litigator. He once fought a four-year-long battle to prove that TV Guide was a trademark; Walter Annenberg later sold the magazine for $11 billion. Today, clients include Ford, Cigna, TPG-Axon Capitol, and Goldman Sachs. When we left Bill, he was hardly lingering over history—he was leaving for NY to meet with a hedge fund.

John Ford is Bisnow's Legal Editor. Story ideas to john@bisnow.com.

 
 
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