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Robert N.C. Nix Jr. Biography

court pennsylvania justice judge

1928-2003

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice

Nix, Robert N.C., Jr., photograph. AP/Wide World Photos Reproduced by permission

As the first African American to head any state supreme court, Robert N.C. Nix Jr. holds an historic place in the United States legal system. He was born into a family of high achievers. His grandfather was born a slave but earned a doctorate in mathematics and became a college dean; his father was Pennsylvania's first black congressman. Nix Jr. made rapid progress through the Pennsylvania courts, rising to the position of Supreme Court Justice in 1972, just sixteen years from his bar qualification, at the age of 44. He won his election by a landslide to become the highest ranking black official in Pennsylvania's history and began a 24-year career in the state's supreme court. He became the state's chief justice in 1984, a position he held until 1996. Nix Jr. is remembered as a man of high ideals, and fairness; as a judge he had a reputation for fighting discrimination wherever he saw it and for supporting individual rights in the face of government authority.

The only child of Robert N.C. Nix Sr. and Ethel Lanier Nix, Nix Jr. grew up heavily influenced by the law and lawyers. His father was Pennsylvania's first black congressman, serving from 1958 to 1980 and becoming well known for his aphorisms and witty speeches; he gave the eulogy in Congress for President John F. Kennedy. Nix Jr. was educated at Central High School in his home city of Philadelphia where he graduated with highest honors. He attended Villanova University, where he majored in philosophy, graduating at the top of his class with an A.B. in 1952 before serving in the United States Army, 1953-55. He graduated with a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 then attended Temple University graduate school to study business administration and economics.

Nix qualified for the Pennsylvania bar in 1956 and became a deputy attorney general, but in 1958 he joined his father in private legal practice with the firm Nix, Rhodes, and Nix, where he became an important lawyer in civil rights trials. Nix resigned from the firm when he became a judge in Philadelphia County's common pleas court in 1968, a post he held until 1971. He was a lifelong advocate of equality, using his position as a judge to challenge the morality and legality of racial segregation and discrimination. Judge Arlin Adams, formerly of the U.S. Court of Appeals Third Circuit, told the Penn Law Journal: "The legacy of decisions during Justice Nix's term encompass great empathy for those suffering the excesses of government authority.... What is remarkable is the grace and dignity with which he conducted himself over the years when he encountered the distasteful actions of those who continued that type of discrimination."

Nix began his career as a supreme court judge when he was elected by a landslide in 1972 to become the first African American to hold such a high position in the state of Pennsylvania. But he was not without opponents. In 1981 fellow justice Rolf Larson is alleged to have tried to force Nix off the court, triggering a bitter struggle that lasted almost up to Nix's retirement; Larson was later removed from the court himself following a Grand Jury investigation in 1994. Nix's career as a Pennsylvania supreme court justice lasted 12 years, in which time he became a role model for many black Americans who saw him as an example of what could be achieved with determination, hard work, and dignity.

His record as a judge was one that marked him out as an original and courageous thinker capable of making new law. The Penn Law Journal records a 1975 judgment in which Nix decided that the influence of drugs or alcohol could mitigate specific intent in the case of homicide. In that case a burglar who had been convicted of first degree murder was awarded a new trial by the high court. He became Chief Justice in 1984 and served until his retirement in 1996, presiding over a court that left a legacy of judgments that protected the individual from longstanding inequalities. Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell said of Nix: "during the course of his entire career as lawyer and judge, Chief Justice Nix dedicated his considerable intellect and energy to breaking down barriers that have no place standing in any system of Democracy."

Nix was also involved in many community projects, serving on school and college committees, as a member of the electoral college, and as a member of the President's Committee on Civil Rights. Besides his work as a judge and in community service Nix was dedicated to his family of four sons, Robert N.C. Nix III, Michael, Jude, Steven, and Anthony, two stepchildren, Timothy and Kimberly Bryant, and nine grandchildren. He was survived by his second wife, Renate E Beckert-Bryant.

At a Glance...

Born Robert Nelson Cornelius Nix Jr., on July 13, 1928, in Philadelphia, PA; died on August 23, 2003; married Dorothy Lewis (deceased); married Renate E Beckert-Bryant; children (first marriage): Robert Nelson Cornelius III, Michael, Anthony, Jude Stephen; children (step): Timothy Bryant, Kimberley Bryant. Education: Villanova University, AB, philosophy, 1952; University of Pennsylvania, JD, 1955; Temple University, postgraduate business administration and economics. Military Service: US Army, 1953-55.

Career: State of Pennsylvania, deputy attorney general, 1956-58; Nix, Rhodes and Nix, partner, 1958-68; Common Pleas Court Philadelphia County, judge, 1968-71; State of Pennsylvania, Justice of the Supreme Court, 1972-84, Chief Justice, 1984-96.

Memberships: NAACP; Board of directors, Germantown Boys Club, 1968; member, council president's association La Salle College, 1971; advisory board La Salle College High School; board of consultors Villanova University School of Law, 1973; member, Pennsylvania Electoral College; member, President's Committee on Civil Rights; member, Omega Psi Phi; president-elect, Conference of Chief Justices, 1990-92, president, 1991-92.

Awards: Guardian Civic League Achievement Award (first Pennsylvanian to be so awarded); honorary degrees from Villanova University, Delaware Law School of Widener College, and Chestnut Hill College.

Sources

Periodicals

Jet, January 12, 2004, p19.

On-line

"Governor Rendell Orders Flags Flown at Half-Staff," PAPower, www.state.pa.us/papower/cwp/view.asp?A=11&Q=435459 (January 10, 2005).

"In Memoriam: Robert N.C. Nix, Jr.," Penn Law Journal, Spring 2004, www.law.upenn.edu/alumni/alumnijournal/Spring2004/in_memoriam/nix.html (January 10, 2005).

"Robert N.C. Nix Jr.," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 10, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

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