Obituaries of conservative commentator James Kilpatrick, who died at the age of 89 on Aug. 15, inevitably focused in part on his role as a Richmond newspaper editor in the "massive resistance" to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s. As we wrote in a story in the Supreme Court Insider newsletter last week, that aspect of his past cannot be ignored. (You can sign up to receive the newsletter here.)
But Kilpatrick has also been remembered for more recent, less inflammatory accomplishments in writing about the Supreme Court, as the story indicated, and in his advocacy for freedom of expression.
In his later years, Kilpatrick gave up his conservative column and wrote a regular column about the Supreme Court, which he had once called "the love of my newspaper life." Even before the column, he was long a familiar and friendly face in the Supreme Court press room as he eagerly looked for under-reported cases to write about.
Asked for her thoughts about Kilpatrick, longtime NPR Court and legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg offered these comments:
"Jack was proof that people are not necessarily stuck in time. He was such a decent sort by the time I knew him that I really couldn’t fathom his one-time advocacy for segregation. And when we finally had a discussion about it, I realized that he was deeply emabarrassed by the opinions he had once so firmly held. When I met him as a young and nobody reporter, he was endlessly generous and gracious to me. In an era when women were a rarity in the press corps, he was among the few who welcomed me to the beat, helped me, and didn’t make me feel stupid, though I certainly was. He was the quintessential gentleman, and I will miss him very much."
In his writings and in his life, Kilpatrick was also a strong supporter of the First Amendment. He was a founding member of the board of trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, serving from 1990 to 2004. In mourning his death, the center put this quote from Kilpatrick up on its web site:
"The Idea of individual liberty lies at the very heart of the American dream. In a very real sense, it is our national religion, and like other religions it is fearfully difficult to practice. It is not easy to be a good Christian, a good Jew. The tenets of faith are demanding. Many persons find it impossible to believe deeply—really, truly, to believe—in matters of doctrine. But as professing members of a church they have an obligation to try. So it is with freedom. Do we really believe in it? Really, deeply, believe in it? Do we believe in freedom sufficiently to tolerate the expression of political opinions we find intolerable? We must try."
Alan Morrison, the former director of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Litigation Group and now an associate dean at George Washington University Law School, recalled a written exchange he had with Kilpatrick as far back as 1976 about freedom of speech.
Kilpatrick had written a column approving of lawyer advertising and of two Supreme Court decisions that were opening up the legal profession and other businesses to competition. Morrison wrote Kilpatrick to note that both cases had been handled by his Nader-affiliated group. "Since it is not often that James J. Kilpatrick and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen are in agreement, I thought I might call that phenomenon to your attention."
A few weeks later, Kilpatrick wrote back indicating this alliance had given him pause. "I confess I had not been aware of your role in Goldfarb [v. Virginia State Bar] and Virginia Pharmacy [Board v. Virginia Consumer Council], two cases I greatly approve of. This has given me something to think about. I sill think I'm right."