The Justice

After eight hours quizzing high school students on their knowledge of the Constitution, you’d think a man wouldn’t want to sit down with a reporter and talk about it more.

But to Justice Michael Douglas, 64, Nevada’s first black Supreme Court Justice, any opportunity to talk about what matters most to him—the Constitution, justice, race and equality—is a chance to share what he’s observed from his side of the bench in the last three decades.

Douglas, who was a Clark County District Court Judge for eight years before being appointed to the high court in 2004, lives in Las Vegas but makes weekly trips to join his six peers in Carson City. The Nevada court is one of the nation’s busiest, hearing more than 2,200 cases a year on issues ranging from land use to the death penalty. (The hot-button case of early 2012 pitted major pharmaceutical companies against patients infected with hepatitis C at Las Vegas clinics in the mid-2000s.)

One of the challenges—and thrills—of being a judge is the need to be an uncommonly quick study on the disparate subjects that come before the court. But for Douglas, it all comes back to a passion for justice—and a personal awareness of the price exacted when it is absent. Even now, having reached the top of the state’s judicial ladder, Douglas is acutely aware of the legacy of racial discrimination.

“Justice should be more than just a perception,” he says. “The fact is that we’re still not all treated equal. There are still people who may not treat me equally when they see me on the street merely because I’m black.” When Douglas recently picked out an item to buy at a high-end store, a clerk asked him if he understood how much it cost.

At least some of the blatant racism Douglas experienced early in his career seems to have been consigned to the past. In his first court appearance as a young legal-services lawyer in 1982, he recalls, “the judge looked right at me in my three-piece suit and said the case would be forfeited because the defendant was appearing without counsel.”

It wasn’t his first collision with hidebound thinking in the legal community. When he was studying at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in the early 1970s, the school had no minority professors. “The university said they couldn’t find any qualified minority faculty in all of San Francisco to teach law classes,” he says with a chuckle.

“So we held a strike. And they found someone.”