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February 16, 2024 National Conference of Specialized Judges

NCSCJ Chair's Column

Hon. Arthur L. Burnett, Sr. (1935-2023)

By Hon. Sidney A. Butcher, Annapolis, MD

Judge Arthur L. Burnett, sr. – the first African-American chair (1974-75) of what is now the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges – passed away on November 20, 2023. Judge Burnett is survived by his wife, Frisbieann Lloyd, to whom he was married for 63 years and his five children, Darnellena Christalyn Burnett, Esq., C.P.A., Dr. Arthur Louis Burnett, II, Daryl Lawford Burnett, M.P.H., Darlisa Ann Burnett, M.B.A., and Dr. Dionne Elizabeth Burnett Roberts, D.V.M.

Judge Burnett had more than a half-century of service to the American Bar Association. Only in recent years has his role as a watchdog on the civil rights movement during the Kennedy Administration come to light (due to the expiration of confidentiality requirements). But Judge Burnett was more than an eyewitness to the quest of African-Americans for civil rights. He was a front-line participant, putting his personal and family safety at risk. 

Born and raised in highly segregated Spotsylvania County, Virginia, the young Arthur Burnett witnessed Jim Crow first hand – from attending segregated schools to a guns-drawn encounter with the local police. He pushed on and was driven to excellence, attending Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Tapped by Thurgood Marshall, a young attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to attempt to integrate the University of Virginia Law School, Judge Burnett was primed to deal with possible danger to him and his family. That case was settled and Judge Burnett wound up at Columbia University Law School because Attorney Marshall was needed for another NAACP project: Brown v. Board of Education.

Judge Burnett was one of the first African-Americans in the Honors Program of the United States Department of Justice and one of the agency’s first African-American attorneys. One day after John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States Judge Burnett was summoned by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to be his confidential “eyes and ears” on the civil rights movement. After serving as a federal prosecutor, Judge Burnett became the first legal advisor to the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department and later became the second United States Magistrate – and the first African-American to hold that post. In that role he was assigned to Chief Judge John Sirica of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and worked with Judge Sirica who oversaw the Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Selected by President Jimmy Carter to spearhead federal civil service and pension reform he was reappointed as United States Magistrate by President Ronald Reagan who later nominated him to the District of Columbia Superior Court. Nearly 20 years ago Judge Burnett retired from the bench and became executive director of the National African-American Drug Policy Coalition where he continued his pursuit of criminal justice reform, particularly equity in drug enforcement practices. Only death could stop his tireless efforts to ensure justice and equity.

Perhaps Judge Burnett’s last public event was this past August in Denver where he spoke about his civil rights legacy. Asked about his concern for the future he said:

“We’ll see whether or not we’ll face another civil war and if the country is so divided that people will resort to violence and crime. One of the greatest threats this country has faced since its creation and the Civil War is now. The whole issue of voting rights and political influence is bringing this country to its knees. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

It is impossible to fully capture the essence of this life of service and justice in a few words or even many pages but perhaps the Kansas state motto is fitting: Ad astra per aspera – to the stars through difficulties.

We mourn the loss of our friend, mentor and colleague. 

Hon. Sidney A. Butcher

2023-2024 Chair, National Conference of Specialized Cout Judges

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