Gignoux, Edward Thaxter

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Gignoux, Edward Thaxter

During his 30-year career in the federal courts, Edward Thaxter Gignoux developed a reputation as an articulate, compassionate, and competent trial judge. He was also a leader in the fields of judicial ethics, court administration, and trial practice and technique. He showcased his skills in a number of high-profile cases—including the Contempt trial of Abbie Hoffman and other defendants known as the Chicago Eight (In re Dellinger, 370 F. Supp. 1304, N.D. Ill., E.D. [1973]).

Gignoux was born in Portland, Maine, on June 28, 1916. He graduated cum laude from Harvard College in 1937 and went on to Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated magna cum laude from the law school in 1940 and began his legal career with the firm of Slee, O'Brian, Hellings, and Ulsh, in Buffalo. After a year in Buffalo, he joined the Washington, D.C., firm of Covington, Burling, Rublee, Acheson, and Shorb.

World War II interrupted Gignoux's Washington, D.C., career after just a few months. In 1942, Gignoux joined the U.S. Army. During his three-year tour of duty with the First Cavalry Division in the Southwest Pacific, he rose to the rank of major and was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

After the war, Gignoux returned to Covington, Burling, in Washington, D.C., to resume the Practice of Law, but a bout with malaria, contracted during his years in service, forced a return to his native Maine for convalescence. As his health returned, Gignoux joined the Portland, Maine, firm of Verrill, Dana, Walker, Philbrick, and Whitehouse, and he married Hildegard Schuyler.

Gignoux and his wife had two children as they settled into life in Portland. In addition to practicing law, Gignoux was named assistant corporation counsel for the city of Portland, and he was twice elected to a three-year term on the Portland City Council, serving from 1949 to 1955.

By 1957, Gignoux was well-known and respected in Maine legal and political circles, and he was a logical choice to fill a vacancy on the federal bench. He was appointed U.S. district judge for the District of Maine in August 1957 by President dwight d. eisenhower, and he served as Maine's only federal court judge for the next 20 years.

One of the first cases he heard as a federal judge was an antitrust action brought by the federal government against the Maine Lobster-men's Association—an important group in a very visible industry (United States v. Maine Lobstermen's Ass'n, 160 F. Supp. 115 [D. Me. 1957]). A jury found the lobstermen guilty, but Gignoux, showing both wisdom and compassion early on, managed to satisfy both parties when he imposed only a small fine on the defendants. Gignoux was also a central figure in Indian settlement claims in his native state, and he was instrumental in establishing that several tribes in Maine were "federal" rather than "colonial" Indians, thus making them eligible for millions of dollars each year in federal housing, education, and health care benefits (Joint Tribal Council v. Morton, 528 F.2d 370 [1st Cir. 1975]). Prior to the Gignoux decision, Maine Indians were considered "colonial" Indians and not the Indians of the frontier that Congress meant to protect in the Nonintercourse Act. Gignoux ruled in 1975 that the statute did apply, thus making some previous land transactions illegal and making the Maine tribes "federal" Indians.

Gignoux's reputation as a trial judge spread quickly. According to one of his former law clerks, lawyers and other judges packed his courtroom during their spare time to watch Gignoux's performance.

Gignoux was serious about the fair and equitable administration of justice. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he served the U.S. Judicial Conference. The Judicial Conference is the principal machinery through which the federal court system operates, establishing the standards policies governing the federal judiciary. In recognition of his efforts with the Conference, Gignoux recieved the Devitt Award in 1987.

Gignoux's work with the Judicial Conference brought him national recognition, and in 1970 he was considered for a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although he was not appointed, he did make an impression on future Court justice david h. souter. When Souter filled out a questionnaire in preparation for his confirmation hearing 20 years later, he noted a voting-rights case that he had argued in 1970 before Gignoux. He said,"It was one of the most gratifying events of my life, for the argument included a genuinely dialectical exchange between the great jurist and me."

As Gignoux's reputation grew, Chief Justice warren e. burger called on him to preside over some very political, and potentially explosive, cases. In 1973, Warren appointed him to preside over the contempt trial of Abbie Hoffman, bobby seale, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner, and John Froines. These 1960s radicals known as the Chicago Seven (even though there were eight of them) had already been tried and convicted for their participation in violent demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Chicago. Following their trial, contempt charges were filed against the individuals and their lawyer, william m. kunstler, for their behavior in court. Gignoux found only Hoffman, Rubin, Dellinger, and their lawyer to be in contempt, but he did not impose additional sentences on the parties involved, saying that their conviction and their previous time served were punishment enough.

On June 1, 1983, after 25 years on the federal bench, Gignoux took senior (or semiretired) status, but he continued to hear cases around the country and to serve on the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals, which heard cases from district courts on the Emergency Natural Gas Act of 1977. Gignoux's ability to uphold both the letter and the spirit of the law, against overwhelming political and social pressures, was still very much in evidence when, during his first year of "retirement,"he was asked to preside over the trial of U.S. district judge Alcee L. Hastings (see Impeachment [sidebar]). Hastings, who was later acquitted of conspiracy to solicit a bribe and of Obstruction of Justice, was the first sitting U.S. judge to face criminal charges. Although pressured to drop the charges throughout the trial, Gignoux said that "the court is entirely persuaded that the government has submitted evidence that is sufficient to sustain a finding by the jury of guilty." Also during the Hastings trial, Gignoux rejected one of the first serious efforts to open a federal court trial to television coverage; Gignoux believed that he was prohibited by federal law from permitting cameras in the courtroom.

"Trials which proceed in accordance with the law, the rules of evidence and the standards of demeanor not only reaffirm the integrity and viability of the judicial process, but also serve to insure the ability of each one of us to protect the rights and liberties we enjoy as citizens."
—Edward Gignoux

Gignoux died on November 4, 1988, in Portland, Maine. Shortly before his death, the city renamed the federal courthouse there in his honor. Gignoux was acknowledged by friend and circuit judge Frank M. Coffin as an "inspiration" and as a jurist who served honorably and well "in the most demanding and delicate of trial situations."