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James Randolph Spencer

James Randolph Spencer

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia Richmond, Virginia


Born: Florence, South Carolina-March 25, 1949.
Education: Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa (A.B. 1971); Harvard Law School, cum laude (J.D. 1974); Howard University School of Divinity, where he graduated first in his class (M. Div. 1985). With his appointment on October 14, 1986, Judge Spencer became the first and only African-American appointed a Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia; he became Chief Judge in 2004. He was appointed by President Reagan.

James Spencer was born and raised in Florence, South Carolina. His father was a mechanic and his mother was a domestic worker and a cook. Judge Spencer's generation was the first in his family to attend college. Both Judge Spencer's mother and his father had a profound influence on him. Judge Spencer notes that they instilled the values that underlie his current success-"values such as honesty, courage, respect for all humanity and love of God. They also convinced me that an educated man is a free man."

Judge Spencer decided to become a lawyer following his own involvement in the civil rights movement. In 1967, he worked for civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman who was practicing at a public interest law firm at that time. Spencer notes: "This was my first exposure to lawyers and the lawyering process. I was so impressed that I decided to become a lawyer."

After graduating from law school, Judge Spencer began his professional career as a staff attorney with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society (1974-1975). From 1975 to 1978, he was a prosecutor with the United States Army Judge Advocate General's Corps. Later, from 1978 to 1983, he was an Assistant United States Attorney with the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. Also prior to his appointment to the federal bench, Judge Spencer served three years, from 1982 to 1986, as an Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Virginia. During his tenure with the Virginia office, Judge Spencer also worked in the U.S. Attorney's D.C. office, becoming the first African-American assigned to the Major Crimes Division in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia.

While Judge Spencer's appointment to the bench as Virginia's only black federal jurist is evidence that progress has been made, the Judge himself notes that much remains to be done:

In seven years on the bench, I've had four prospective jurors admit, in response to questions, that they were so filled with racial bias that they could not sit as an impartial juror in a case involving black litigants. So much for the color blind society that some 1980's politicians claimed to have found.

Judge Spencer's own work as a jurist may ultimately right the wrongs that are the product of such prejudice. He feels that the best part of his job is "having the power to bring justice to a circumstance where it did not exist before, to vindicate the righteous and punish the wrongdoers."

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