Norton, Eleanor Holmes

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Norton, Eleanor Holmes

Eleanor Holmes Norton is a politician, lawyer, educator, and Civil Rights activist. As the District of Columbia's delegate to the U.S. Congress, she expanded the district's power over its own affairs.

Norton, the eldest of three daughters, was born to Coleman Holmes and Vela Holmes on June 13, 1937, in Washington, D.C. Her father was a government employee in the District of Columbia, and her mother was a schoolteacher. Norton grew up in the segregated Washington, D.C., of the 1940s and 1950s and was a member of the last segregated class at Dunbar High School. Norton attended Antioch College, where she participated in many civil rights protests, and she graduated from Yale Law School.

In 1965, Norton became an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), seeking to defend the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. The clients she represented were not always those she had imagined. Among them were former Alabama governor george wallace, an avowed segregationist, who had been denied a permit to speak at New York City's Shea Stadium, and a group of white supremacists who had been barred from holding a rally. The white supremacists' suit eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Norton argued it and won (Carroll v. President of Princess Anne, 393 U.S. 175, 89 S. Ct. 347, 21 L. Ed. 2d 325 [1968]).

In 1970, Norton became head of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. In 1977, President jimmy carter appointed her to run the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was facing a backlog of nearly 100,000 unsettled Affirmative Action and discrimination complaints. At the EEOC, Norton initiated a system known as "rapid charge processing", which provided for informal settlement procedures. By late 1980, the backlog had dropped to 32,000 complaints. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) criticized the agency's emphasis on settling individual complaints rather than attacking broad patterns of discrimination. But Norton argued that only by wiping out the backlog could the EEOC get to these broader issues. By the time she left the agency, it was taking on more sweeping investigations, antidiscrimination guidelines for employers were in place, and the Carter administration was enforcing workplace laws such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (29 U.S.C.A. 206) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (29 U.S.C.A. 621).

Following Carter's defeat in 1980, Norton moved on to the Urban Institute. In 1982, she joined the law faculty at Georgetown University Law Center, where she wrote widely on civil rights and education issues. In 1990, Norton was elected the nonvoting D.C. delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her first term, she helped the district government to obtain $300 million in new federal aid and a guarantee of steady increases in future aid. She secured seats on three House committees that greatly affect the district's economy, and she was the only freshman legislator to be invited on a congressional fact-finding mission to the Middle East following the Persian Gulf War.

Norton also sought to increase the power of the D.C. delegate position. The district's delegate to Congress is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution from becoming a full member of the House of Representatives, and had been allowed to vote only in legislative committees. Norton argued that because she could vote in other committees, she should also be allowed to vote in the committee of the whole, where most of the business of the full House is conducted. In February 1993, the House granted Norton and the representatives of four U.S. territories—Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa—a limited vote in the committee of the whole. The voting limitations included a provision that any time the delegates provided a margin of victory for legislation, a second vote would be held, from which the delegates would be excluded. Despite these restrictions, House Republicans filed suit in federal district court, asking that the delegates' right to vote be taken away. In March 1993, U.S. district judge Harold Greene rejected the challenge (Michel v. Anderson, 817 F. Supp. 126 [D.D.C.]). The Republicans then appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which upheld the lower court (14 F. 3d 623 [D.C. Cir. 1994]). Norton and the four territorial representatives retained their voting privileges until January 1995, when a new House took them away.

Norton's efforts on behalf of the District of Columbia extended outside the House of Representatives. Traditionally, the senior senator from each state, if a member of the president's party, recommends to the president candidates for federal judgeships and U.S. attorney positions. Because the district has no senators, the president alone has made these appointments for it. In 1993, Norton convinced President bill clinton to give her the advisory powers reserved for senators and to allow her to nominate candidates for a U.S. attorney position and five federal judgeships, becoming the first district congressional delegate to do so. Norton established the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, composed of members from the district, to forward recommendations to her. All five of the judges Norton ultimately recommended to the president had been active in D.C. legal circles, and four of them lived in the district.

Norton also continued her predecessors' efforts to obtain statehood for the district. After a three-year effort to bring the issue to the House floor, the measure failed by a vote of 277–153. But Norton said that she would continue her efforts and that she would put new emphasis on gaining support for legislation that would expand the district's limited home rule. Norton also worked for increased federal contributions to the city's Pension system, for an end to congressional review of the city's budget, and for the right of D.C. residents to choose local judges.

In 2003, Norton was serving her seventh term as the Congresswoman for the District of Columbia. She was a member of subcommittees on the House Committee on Government Reform and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she has a full vote. She has served as Democratic chair of the Women's Caucus and has served in the Democratic House leadership group. She continues to fight for civil rights and human rights and to advocate strongly for full congressional voting representation for District of Columbia citizens.

"On behalf of the taxpaying citizens I Represent, I deeply regret the withdrawal of the vote I won on the House floor just two years ago."
—Eleanor Norton

Norton has served on numerous boards including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Board of Governors of the D.C. Bar Association. She has received more than 50 honorary degrees.

Further readings

"Eleanor Holmes Norton." House of Representatives Web-site. Available online at <> (accessed April 21, 2003).

Lester, Joan Steinau. 2003. Fire In My Soul. New York: Atria Books.


District of Columbia.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Clyburn, Cedric Richmond, D-La., Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C, Butterfield, Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., David Price, D-N.C, Mark Walker, R-N.C, Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, Mo Brooks, R-Ala., John Lewis, D-Ga., Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Randy Forbes, R-Va., Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., Stacey Plaskett, D-V.L, Hank Johnson, D-Ga., Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., Bobby Scott, D-Va., Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., Hoyer, Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., Corrine Brown, D-Fla., Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Gwen Graham, D-Fla., Lacy Clay, D-Mo., Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., Jared Polis, D-Colo., Marc Veasey, D-Texas, Richard Hudson, R-N.C, John Conyers, D-Mich., Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and Walter Jones, R-N.C.