Exactly 25 years ago today, Hunton & Williams partner John Thomas became the first African American justice to sit on the Virginia Supreme Court. He was 32 years old at the time, also making him the youngest person to hold a seat on the court.
The appointment was clearly a huge honor, but Thomas says at the time, he had more practical matters to think about. “I knew it was a historic moment. It was a moment in history in Virginia,” he says. “But I was actually thinking about what would I be doing? What would I be reading?”
Thomas spent nearly seven years on the court, from April 1983 to November 1989. Though he took part in thousands of rulings, there is one that still stands out as a highlight. It was a decision he wrote more than 20 years ago, which stated that a husband could indeed be convicted of raping his wife, contrary to the common belief at the time. “It was a decision that made a difference,” says Thomas.
Today, Thomas is a partner in Hunton’s Richmond, Va. office and chief of the firmwide appellate practice. He made partner at Hunton a year before accepting the judgeship, and rejoined the firm after he left the court. Thomas also currently sits on the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the Netherlands, which hears doping cases against Olympic-level athletes, as well as contenders hoping to qualify for the Olympics.
Since Thomas, two other African-American justices have been appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court. Reflecting on this, as well as the prospect of the first African-American U.S. President, Thomas says that these are steps in the right direction, but by no means the completion of the goal. “It’s left to every generation to keep that struggle going,” he says. “To see Barack Obama in this important position…that’s furtherance of the promise of America.”