Allyson Duncan J.D. '75

Taking the Fourth
Writer: 
January 31, 2004

 

Lawyers for alleged September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui argue that testimony from Al Qaeda members held by the U.S. government could vindicate their client. Prosecutors for the Justice Department reply that making such witnesses available would compromise national security. Who will resolve the matter?

Allyson Duncan J.D. '75

Allyson Duncan J.D. '75 could play a major role. As the newest member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Duncan is eligible to sit on the three-judge panel that was to hear the government's latest appeal in December.

The Fourth Circuit is also the Court of Appeals for another high-profile terrorism-related case, Yaser Esam Hamdi v. Donald Rumsfeld (Hamdi is the American citizen who was captured in Afghanistan and is being held in a military brig in Virginia).

"She is going on that bench when she will be able to offer a compassionately conservative voice to their deliberations," says A.P. Carlton, president of the American Bar Association and a former colleague of Duncan's at Kilpatrick Stockton LLP.

Duncan, a Republican, won't discuss specific cases, nor her jurisprudence.

Of her new position, she says, "I find it awe-inspiring." But, she adds, "It's not a role that I sat down and thought about assuming or pursuing."

Neither did she set out to gain the breadth of legal experience that won her the respect of colleagues and approval from North Carolina Democrats and Republicans (the two parties had failed to agree on a nominee for the court of appeals for over a decade, until President Bush nominated Duncan in April). "Pure fortuity," she says.

It was fortune, then, that landed Duncan, three years out of law school, at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she rose through the ranks to become the commission's acting legal counsel under then-chairman Clarence Thomas. (She later testified before Congress that she knew of no impropriety in his relationship with Anita Hill.) Her Washington reputation served as the launch pad for her career in North Carolina, where she served, in turn, as a law professor, state utilities commissioner, state appeals court judge, and partner in Kilpatrick Stockton.

She broke barriers along the way. Duncan was the first African-American woman to serve on the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the first African American to be elected president of the North Carolina Bar Association. And now, she is the first African-American woman to sit on the Fourth Circuit court.

"It's a significant distinction," says Duncan, adding that she looks forward to the time when her kind of career path is no longer considered remarkable for black women. To that end, she plans to "nurture law clerks and get them accustomed to the fact that this is a norm."

Otherwise, she says, she is not out to make history. To prepare for her first cases, her plan is simple: "I will read what arrives, until I am confronted with something that requires additional research." That is challenge enough; she places her hand on a two-inch-thick stack of papers on a corner of her desk and notes, "This was yesterday."

Duncan, a self-described "tortoise," has experience plodding through legal challenges. An early one came at Duke Law School. "I spent the first year being convinced I was not cut out for it," she says, "not because I didn't like it, but simply because I didn't think I had the aptitude or the discipline. At one point I sought counseling, and I thought I should probably just quit."

"Then I thought, 'Well, I'm here, let me just sweat it out and see where this goes,' " she continues. "I just constitutionally dislike giving up."

Good thing--because, Constitutionally, she has plenty of challenges ahead.