Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. ’72 recounts his journey from pre-civil rights era Alabama to the federal bench

As a student in Bessemer, Alabama’s segregated public schools, Solomon Oliver Jr. ’72 did not envision a future as a federal judge. At the time, he says, “there were very few African-American lawyers, and I did not know any.” And the law was only one of many careers that seemed out of reach, Oliver notes. “I grew up in the 50s and 60s, and society was segregated from top to bottom. During that time, there was no job I could have if there was a white person who wanted that job,” he recalls.

Solomon Oliver Jr
Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. '72

Decades later in 1994, when President Clinton appointed him to the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Oliver kept that history in mind. “In the context of all of the law and history where blacks were denied so many opportunities, it just felt wonderful to have an opportunity to be on the federal bench, and to hear cases concerning the most important spheres of people’s lives, and to work to give the fairest result I could,” he says.

This year, in recognition of service to the legal profession, Oliver was named a recipient of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Robert J. Kutak Award, which honors individuals who have “made significant contributions to the collaboration of the academy, the bench, and the bar.” His contributions to this collaboration include his involvement in the in the ABA’s section of legal education and admissions to the bar, where he has served as chair, and his work as a member of the federal civil rules and evidence rules advisory committees. Past recipients of the award have included US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; Judge Harry Edwards of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit; University Professor Emeritus Anthony Amsterdam; and former NYU Law Dean Norman Redlich LLM ’55.

“[Judge Oliver] is very truly down-to-earth and grounded, and he’s deeply concerned with the well-being of the people around him,” says Angela Groves ’17, who clerked with the judge during the 2017 term and is now joining the civil rights law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax in Washington, DC. Groves notes that although he has a rigorous work ethic and is often the last one to leave chambers, he brings a sense of humor and fun to the job, and checks in with each clerk every morning, often with “something to make you smile or laugh.”

Most importantly, Groves says, that warmth of character extends even to his role at sentencings. The judge is always deliberately attentive and courteous to all parties involved, she says: “Whether plaintiff or defendant, he really treats everyone with dignity and respect.”

Oliver’s path to the bench began with encouragement from an uncle who had been interested in the law. Oliver also cites his parents’ hard work as they raised him and his nine siblings: “There were many opportunities they didn’t have, but they were very smart people, and they were committed to us and to making sure that we had the opportunities they didn’t have.”  As the civil rights movement gained traction, he felt increasingly drawn to the legal profession. “I began to see the many ways in which lawyers could broadly have an impact on ensuring justice and equality in our society,” he says. Although he considered pursuing a PhD in political science, Oliver ultimately chose to attend NYU Law.

Oliver recalls that his class, which entered in 1969, had the largest number of African-American students in the Law School’s history up until then. “I attended the Law School at a very interesting and exciting time,” he says. “We had a robust BALSA [Black Allied Law Students Association] chapter which served as a community of support for its members as well as a positive vehicle by which we could work with the Law School in further diversifying the student body and faculty.” At NYU Law, Oliver also found a group of inspirational professors and mentors such as the late Norman Dorsen, as well as John Johnston, Robert Pitofsky, Leroy Clark, Irving Younger, and William Hutton.  

Oliver’s most cherished mentorship, however, occurred when he clerked for Judge William Hastie of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, who had been part of the group of civil rights leaders who put together the original strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education. “I still consider it the highlight of my career, even now, just to have been around someone who made that kind of contribution to society, black history, and the judiciary,” Oliver says.

Following his clerkship, Oliver worked in the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, serving as chief of the Civil Division and the Appellate Litigation division. He then taught as a professor at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where he eventually became associate dean before leaving academia for the judiciary. 

In the 24 years that Oliver has served on the court—seven as chief judge—he has presided over a wide range of cases and issues. Currently, he is overseeing the City of Cleveland’s police reform efforts as a result of a 2015 consent decree with the US Department of Justice that requires the city to revise its search-and-seizure guidelines and the police force to undergo re-training. “There’s a lot of collaboration between the city, the monitor, and the Justice Department to ensure that best practices are being employed in the way the police carry out their responsibilities,” Oliver says. “I think it’s an important matter to be involved in.”

Posted September 17, 2018