Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said a goal of this weekend’s conference in honor of the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham LAW ’52 was to improve the U.S. legal system.

“Law is not an inanimate instrument with a will of its own,” Norton said after she discussed Higginbotham’s criticism of what he considered oppressive aspects of U.S. law. “It’s not agnostic. It has values, and those values come from us.”

Students, lawyers and professors gathered at the Yale Law School last weekend to honor former Yale professor Higginbotham with a discussion of “Race, Values and the American Legal Process.”

“This conference is a gift to the Yale Law School,” Law School Dean Anthony Kronman said.

Kronman said the conference, which dealt with the intersection of race and law, was intended to honor Higginbotham, who died in 1998, with a “working memorial.”

Mariama Johnson, a first-year student at Penn State’s Dickinson Law School, said she came to the conference to learn what other people are saying about issues affecting the African-American community.

“I’ve been meeting some people with different views than mine, but everyone has been talking about how law can have a positive impact on the community,” Johnson said.

Friday’s opening ceremony included speakers who knew Higginbotham personally.

Student organizer Cynthia Johnson LAW ’03 first met Higginbotham as a student at the Divinity School when she cross-registered for Higginbotham’s “Race, Values, and the American Legal Process” class at the Law School.

“I made a connection between the African-American church and African-American legal history, between the theological concept of love and the political and legal conception of justice,” Johnson said.

Norton said Higginbotham was more radical at age 70 than he was at age 37.

“During the intermediate time, though, he had experienced nothing but applause,” Norton said. “He didn’t count racism as a mere individual matter. He was driven by more than personal experience. He developed a sense of race by thinking it through and writing it out.”

Carmen Corrales, a lawyer from the Cleary Gottlieb firm in New York, first heard Higginbotham speak when she was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and he spoke to minority students about how to succeed. She later listened to his lectures at Penn and enrolled in a class of his at Harvard Law School.

“I went to everything of his I could,” Corrales said. “I think of him as a paradigm of black dignity.”

Panels on Saturday addressed race, values, sexuality, the judiciary and democracy.

Higginbotham served as chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1989 to 1991 and as senior judge until 1993. Higginbotham taught at the law schools of Harvard University, New York University, Penn, Stanford University and Yale.