Tuttle, Elbert Parr

Tuttle, Elbert Parr

Elbert Parr Tuttle will be remembered as an influential jurist of the Civil Rights era. As judge, and later chief judge, of the old Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, he ruled on cases from six southern states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) through the storm of civil rights litigation following brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954)—the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that held racial Segregation in public education to be against the law.

"Like love, talent is only useful in its expenditure, and it is never exhausted."
—Elbert Tuttle

Because racial segregation was law throughout most of the South, the Fifth Circuit became the United States' proving ground for civil rights in the late 1950s and 1960s. Tuttle and fellow judges John R. Brown, of Houston, Texas, Richard T. Rives, of Montgomery, Alabama, and John Minor Wisdom, of New Orleans—known derisively as the Four—faced delaying tactics, political pressures, and all manner of threats as they worked to make the Supreme Court's landmark ruling a reality in key states of the old Confederacy.

The judges of the Fifth Circuit changed the South, and therefore the nation. Under their gavels, Jim Crow Laws were declared unconstitutional, African Americans were granted voting rights, racial discrimination in jury selection was curbed, state universities and colleges were desegregated, and equal opportunity in education became a reality.

Tuttle probably reflected on his own schooling when championing equal education for all. He was born July 17, 1897, in Pasadena, California. In 1906, Tuttle's father, Guy Harmon Tuttle, moved his family to Hawaii so that he could accept a position as bookkeeper on a sugar plantation. Young Tuttle, and his older brother Malcolm, were enrolled at the Punahou Academy, in Honolulu, where they were the minority students among classmates of native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese descent.

Tuttle returned to the mainland in 1914 to enter college. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1918 and bachelor of law degree in 1923 from Cornell University.

Following law school, Tuttle and his brother-in-law, William Sutherland, started to look for a promising location to establish a law practice. After investigating several locations in the South, they settled on Atlanta. Also in 1923, after being admitted to the Georgia bar, they opened the firm of Sutherland, Tuttle, and Brennan.

Though Tuttle specialized in tax litigation, he also tried several civil rights cases, including a battle to win a new trial for a black man convicted of raping a white woman, and a challenge to a Georgia statute under which a black man had been sentenced to twenty years on a chain gang for distributing Communist party literature. At a time when Pro Bono work (work donated for the public good) was unusual, Tuttle frequently represented people who could not afford an attorney.

Tuttle began organizing support for Republican Party candidates in Georgia and was acknowledged as a state Republican leader by the late 1940s. He said he allied himself with the Republican party because he was appalled at the whites-only policies of Georgia's Democratic Party.

In 1953 President dwight d. eisenhower named Tuttle to a general counsel post in the Treasury Department. In 1954 just three months after School Desegregation was struck down by the Supreme Court's Brown decision, the president asked Tuttle to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

It was not easy for Tuttle to decide whether to accept the president's offer. Nevertheless, mindful of the social and legal upheaval that would follow the Supreme Court's decision, he chose to take on the challenge. Though he received threats and hate mail for following the Brown decision, Tuttle faced frustrated segregationists head on—and in the process helped to change the course of a nation.

Two of Tuttle's early opinions on the Fifth Circuit helped to shape the political history of the state of Georgia. In Toombs v. Fortson, 205 F. Supp. 248 (1962), Tuttle found the process of appointment to the Georgia legislature to be unconstitutional and ordered it changed. In Wesberry v. Vandiver, 206 F. Supp. 276 (1962), Tuttle wrote a dissenting opinion concerning congressional district reapportionment; on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with his dissent. Although Tuttle was in favor of correcting the malapportionment that diminished the power of black votes, he believed that such action should arise from the states, not the courts.

By 1961 Tuttle had become the Fifth Circuit's chief judge. During his tenure, he decided many landmark cases involving Jim Crow laws, voting rights, jury discrimination, employment discrimination, reapportionment, and school desegregation—including the order to admit james meredith, an African American, to the then all-white University of Mississippi in 1962. Tuttle stepped down as chief judge in 1968, taking senior (or semiretired) status. He died June 23, 1996, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Further readings

"Excerpts from the Elbert Tuttle Portrait Ceremony and Eleventh Circuit Historical Society Ceremony." 1983. Cornell Law Review (January 24).

Tuttle, Elbert P. 1993. "In Memorium. To My Dear Friend, John R. Brown." Texas Law Review (April).

Cross-references

Apportionment; Integration.

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