Drew S. Days III, the first African American to head the Department of Justice’s civil rights division and later to become attorney general under President Bill Clinton, died Sunday in East Haven, Conn. He was 79 years old.
His wife, Ann Langdon-Days, said the cause was complications in dementia. He died in a long-term care facility.
Mr Days was born in the southern United States. He attended Yale Law School, fought for civil rights in court, and had a meteoric career that, without his understanding of the law, may have resulted in a seat on the US Supreme Court in an obscure child pornography case.
He knew early on that he wanted to work for civil rights. “I drove separate buses and I was out of time with the separate lunch counters and water fountains,” he recalled an interview in 2014 with the Touro Law Review. “I had a real feeling for it. My mother was a teacher and she suffered from the fact that her aspirations were very limited due to segregation. “
He avoided working for a major judge or network in a company. Rather, he began with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago to work against housing discrimination. He later joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, on which he brought forward multiple school desegregation cases, including a desegregation lawsuit he won in the same Tampa, Florida schools that he attended as a boy .
President Jimmy Carter appointed Mr. Days as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1977. This made him the first black man to head a department in the Justice Department. His tenure was marked by the aggressive enforcement of the country’s civil rights laws in cases of police misconduct and discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, voting and education.
He joined Yale Law School in 1981 and stayed there for 35 years. During this time he testified before Congress against the appointment of Clarence Thomas before the Supreme Court on the grounds that Justice Thomas – then a federal appeals judge – had no sensitivity or historical perspective with regard to discrimination issues.
While at Yale, Mr. Days made a three-year detour at the relatively young age of 51 to serve as the attorney general, the country’s chief attorney in the courtroom.
It was widely viewed as intended for a seat on the Bundesbank and possibly the Supreme Court. But a political turmoil early on in his tenure in the Clinton administration made such a rising unlikely.
The case concerned the 1991 conviction of a Pennsylvania man, Stephen A. Knox, for videotape possession of minors engaged in sexually explicit behavior. “Sexually explicit” was defined by the congress as “lascivious display of the genitals or the pubic area”.
When Mr. Knox appealed his case to the Supreme Court, President George H.W. The Bush Justice Department supported the maintenance of the conviction. But three months into his new job, Mr. Days noticed that the girls in Mr. Knox’s tapes were indeed clothed and not acting lasciviously, and so he believed the tapes did not meet the legal definition of sexually explicit.
His “confessed mistake” – a legal practice in which the Attorney General admits that a lower court had ruled a case incorrectly – reversed the position of the Bush administration, and Mr. Days recommended that the case be returned to the lower court. The Supreme Court did so but eventually upheld the conviction.
After Mr. Days said the case was wrongly ruled, Republicans in Congress and their Conservative allies pounced on them, accusing the new Clinton administration of being criminal and advocating radical legal views.
The subject became so dangerous that Republicans denounced Mr. Days’ stance in the Senate. Democrats joined them, and the The Senate voted unanimously condemn his interpretation of the law.
President Clinton then sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno stating that he agreed to the Senate and that child pornography laws should be interpreted as broadly as possible. A senior Clinton official told Newsweek that the Knox case “cost days a Supreme Court seat”.
Mr. Clinton turned back other choices from Mr. Days, who took the reversals with equanimity. “I did what I had to do to the best of my ability,” he told Newsweek, “and the president has exercised his authority.”
Some found Mr. Days to be politically deaf, others as advocates of the principle, even if it was a headache for his boss.
“Drew was committed to principle, not politics,” said Harold Hongju Koh, former dean of Yale Law School, in a telephone interview.
“It would have been easy for him to do what was politically expedient to get ahead,” added Koh, “but that wasn’t in his DNA.”
Drew Saunders Days III was born in Atlanta on August 29, 1941. His father, Drew Saunders Days 2d, was an insurance manager and accountant. His mother, Dorothea (Jamerson) Days, was a teacher.
He grew up in Tampa until the early 1950s when his father got an insurance job in New Rochelle, New York and the family moved north.
He received his bachelor’s degree in English literature from Hamilton College, New York State, in 1963 and his law degree from Yale in 1966.
Mr. Days had loved to sing – practicing Renaissance madrigals in the shower – and was a well known tenor in the Yale Yale Russian Choir. When the choir was looking for female singers for roles in the Mikhail Glinka opera A Life for the Tsar, Ann Ramsay Langdon, a Connecticut College student, volunteered. The two met during rehearsals and married in 1966.
During his law school, Mr. Days worked for a Georgia civil rights attorney and then briefly joined a small Chicago law firm. He and his wife then served in the Peace Corps in Honduras for two years.
Mr. Days was brought to the attention of President Carter when Mr. Carter appointed Griffin B. Bell as attorney general. Judge Bell, who had served on the US Circuit Court of Appeals, had been impressed with Mr. Days as the young attorney in the south debated school de-registration cases. Mr. Days headed the Civil Rights Division for the term of the Carter administration.
During his later tenure as attorney general, he argued 17 cases before the Supreme Court and oversaw a group of government attorneys who made more than 180 appearances before the Supreme Court.
One of his most famous cases was his successful argument against term limits for members of the Congress. The 1995 Supreme Court ruling, US Term Limits v Thornton, threw cold water on a popular movement announced by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in his treaty with America, and which was nominally supported by many politicians.
After serving as attorney general, Mr. Days returned to Yale, where he posted a “No Ads” sign in his office. He continued teaching while practicing at a private firm, Morrison & Foerster, in Washington. He headed the firm’s Supreme Court and Appeals Group from 1997 until his retirement in 2011. He retired from Yale in 2017.
In addition to his wife, two daughters, Dr. Alison L. Days and Elizabeth J. Days; two granddaughters; and his sister Jacquelyn D. Serwer.
Reflecting on his life in an interview with his daughter Elizabeth for StoryCorps In 2008, Mr Days said he was delighted that when he moved his family to New Haven in the early 1980s, his daughters took buses to public schools.
“I put maybe a million children on school buses,” he said, referring to his involvement in school segregation cases that resulted in compulsory buses. “When my daughters volunteer to take school buses and enjoy it, I feel better.”