Adolpho A Birch Jr., the first African-American permanently elected to the position of chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court andthe only person in Tennessee’s history to serve in every level of the state’s judiciary, lost his fight with cancer last week at the age of 78. The son of an Episcopal priest and Mary Jefferson Birch, a school teacher who died when he was 5, his father Adolpho A Birch Sr. subsequently raised his two- sons, Adolpho and Kennard as a single parent.
His father’s professional concerns for his parishioners left Birch with much time on his own, and he often raised small amounts of money for himself by picking up soft drink bottles for their deposit values, and generally learned to function independently. 1993 Birch said that as a little boy growing up in Washington, D.C., he aspired to be a lawyer. “I never, never wanted to be anything else,” Birch said during an interview videotaped by the National Visionary Leadership Project. “I never recall having wanted to be anything else or do anything else. And racism and segregation, as I saw it, only increased my desire, hardened my resolve, but the initial desire was there in the first place.”
His life and unparalleled service to the country and the state of Tennessee was honored earlier this week as his body laid in state Tuesday at the historic Metro Courthouse in downtown Nashville and in a memorial service at the War Memorial Auditorium. Birch was born on September 22, 1932 in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Dunbar High School in the city’s Northeast quadrant Birch, attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania later transferring to Howard University where he earned an undergraduate degree and sold hot dogs and newspapers and even drove a taxi to put himself through law school. He also served two-years in the U.S. Navy before moving to Nashville in the late 1950’s.
During that time he maintained a private law practice where he was instrumental in the Civil Rights movement providing free legal representation to activists who had been arrested for conducting sit-ins at segregated lunch counters downtown. He also taught law at Meharry Medical College, Fisk, Tennessee State universities and later at the Nashville School of Law. In 1963 Birch was appointed assistant public defender for Davidson County and in 1966, he was appointed assistant district attorney for Davidson County. He was the first African American to work as a prosecutor in Davidson County
His judicial career is marked by historical accomplishments. In 1969, he was appointed to a General Sessions Court judge in Davidson County, making him the first African American to serve in that office. The next year he was elected to the judgeship, the first time an African American won election as a judge in the county. In 1978 he was appointed Criminal Court Judge for the Twentieth District (Davidson County) and later he traversed uncharted territory by becoming the first black person to serve as the presiding judge over the Trial Courts of Davidson County, making him responsible for case assignment and other procedural issues.
In 1987 he again made state history when Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him the first African American in state history to sit on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and a year later Birch was confirmed by the voters of the state to that office. In August 1990, Birch was elected to the Tennessee Supreme Court, becoming only the second black ever to serve on that body to that time. Previously George Brown of Memphis was the first African American Supreme Court Justice appointed in 1980 to fill a vacancy but was defeated for election later that year. In October 1994 Birch was selected Chief Justice by his fellow Justices, serving in that capacity until May 1996.
As a justice Birch was an unfailing opponent to the death penalty often writing in dissenting opinions that he had “grave concerns” over the method the court used to compare capital cases. On several occasions on the bench he argued strenuously that Tennessee’s death penalty was not handed down in a consistent manner. In one particularly controversial case Birch wrote the decision which overturned the death sentence for an escaped convict, who had raped and murdered a 78-year old Memphis woman. The ruling said the crime was not, “heinous, atrocious or cruel” enough to warrant the death penalty, though the original conviction was upheld.
When his seat came up in August 1998, Birch was attacked politically by a coalition of police officers, victim’s rights organizations and crime victims for his position on the death penalty but he he won a hotly contested election to an eight-year term on the Supreme Court with 54 percent of the vote. Subsequently Birch served again as Chief Justice from July 1997 to August 1998 and September 1999 to August 2001. Birch also played a key role in adopting a Supreme Court rule that allowed cameras in state courtrooms, giving media and the public greater access to the judicial system. Birch retired from the bench in 2006 after 13 years on the state Supreme Court, six on the Tennessee Court of Appeals and 18 on Davidson County’s General Sessions and Criminal courts.
Among the honors Birch received was the National Bar Association’s William H. Hastie Award, awarded to him in 1995; The International Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity honored him with its Barbara Jordan Award, the fraternity’s highest honor; in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee recognized Birch with a Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his “enduring commitment to equality and justice” and calling him a “beacon for equality” in Tennessee; the A. A. Birch Criminal Justice Building in downtown Nashville, completed in 2006 to house Davidson County Criminal Courts, was dedicated in his honor in June 2006; and, a bust of Birch is displayed in the entrance of the Tennessee Supreme Court Building in Nashville.
Justice Adolpho A Birch is survived by twin daughters Andrea A. Birch, MD. and Angela Birch Cox, Esq, son, Adolpho A. Birch III, Esq., brother, Kennard Birch; grandchildren, Michael Cox, Erin Ferguson, Elena Ferguson and John Ferguson III; sister- and brother-in-law Virginia and Charles Speller; niece Dana Clark; and others.
Donations can still be made in his honor to the Justice A. A. Birch Jr. Legal Education Fund, P.O. Box 331487, Nashville, 37203.