Drew S. Days III, who was the first African-American to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department and later became solicitor general under President Bill Clinton, died on Sunday at a long-term care facility in East Haven, Conn. His wife, Ann Langdon-Days, said the cause was complications of dementia. He was 79.
Born in the segregated South, Mr. Days went to Yale Law School, fought for civil rights through the courts and enjoyed a meteoric career that might have led to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court if not for his legal opinion in an obscure child pornography case.He knew from an early age that he wanted to work for civil rights. “I rode segregated buses and I was from the era with the segregated lunch counters and water fountains,” he said in an interview.
During his later stint as solicitor general, Mr. Days argued 17 cases before the Supreme Court and oversaw a group of lawyers who made more than 180 appearances. One of his most noted cases was his successful argument against term limits for members of Congress. The 1995 decision, U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, threw cold water on a popular movement, heralded by Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House, in his Contract With America, that had nominal support from many politicians, but little real enthusiasm.
“I put perhaps a million kids on school buses,” he said, referring to his involvement in school desegregation cases that led to mandatory busing. “To have my daughters take school buses voluntarily and enjoy it makes me feel better.” “Drew was committed to principle, not politics,” Harold Hongju Koh, a former dean of Yale Law School, said in a phone interview.