Wright, James Skelly

Wright, James Skelly

James Skelly Wright served as a federal district judge in Louisiana from 1949 to 1962 and as a federal court of appeals judge in Washington, D.C., from 1962 to 1986. From 1978 to 1981, he was the chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court. Wright distinguished himself as a district judge during the 1950s when he forced the desegregation of the New Orleans, Louisiana, public schools and the city's public transportation system. Wright continued this course on the federal appeals court when he ordered sweeping changes in the discriminatory policies of the District of Columbia's school system.

Wright was born on January 14, 1911, in New Orleans. He graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans in 1931 and earned a law degree from Loyola Law School in 1934. Unable to find legal work during the Great Depression, Wright taught high school and lectured in history at Loyola until 1937, when he became an assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard as the legal aide to an admiral at the U.S. Embassy in London.

After the war, Wright briefly practiced law in Washington, D.C., before moving back to New Orleans. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman named him U.S. attorney in New Orleans and a year later appointed him to the federal district court in New Orleans.

Wright's 13 years on the district bench were controversial. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), which outlawed state-sponsored racial Segregation of public schools, Wright granted the NAACP's request to desegregate the New Orleans public schools. His decision in Bush v. Orleans Parish School Bd., 138 F. Supp. 337 (1956), was met with resistance by virtually every public official in Louisiana. By the time Wright assumed the appellate bench in 1962, he had issued 41 rulings and had injunctions in force against the governor, the attorney general, the superintendent of education, the state police, the National Guard, all district attorneys, all sheriffs, all mayors, all police chiefs, and the state legislature.

In 1962, President john f. kennedy wished to appoint Wright to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans. Vehement opposition from Southern senators dissuaded Kennedy from going forward with the nomination. Instead, he appointed Wright to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

As an appellate judge, Wright continued his career of judicial activism. He took major steps toward eliminating discrimination against poor African-Americans in the district's public schools. To that end, he ordered sweeping changes in the schools. In Hobson v. Hansen, 269 F. Supp. 401 (D.D.C. 1967), he eliminated the "tracking" system, which attempted to place schoolchildren according to mental ability in hopes of stimulating bright children and helping slower ones. However, that system often resulted in placement along racial lines, with most African-Americans being placed in lower tracks, and whites being placed in upper tracks. In other cases, Wright broadened the concept of illegal discrimination to include "de facto" discrimination (where segregation exists mainly because of social and economic patterns).

"There are social and political problems which at times seem to defy resolution [in the political arena]. In such situations … the judiciary must bear a hand and accept its responsibility to assist in the solution where constitutional rights hang in the balance."
—J. Skelly WRight

Wright also issued rulings that advanced Consumer Protection. He ruled in favor of the rights of slum tenants to withhold rent for dilapidated and rat-infested dwellings (Jarvins v. First National Realty Corp., 428 F.2d 1071 [D.C. Cir. 1970]), and provided remedies for poor consumers who had signed "unconscionable" contracts, which contained excessive rates of interest and threatened them with repossession of goods if they failed to make payments. (Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co., 350 F.2d 445 [D.C. Cir. 1965]).

Throughout his years on the bench, Wright espoused what he once described as a Jurisprudence of "goodness," which he said was inspired by the work of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. In this jurisprudence, what was "fair" was often more important than what had been held in previous cases.

Wright assumed senior status in 1986 and died on August 6, 1988, in Washington, D.C.

Further readings

Brennan, William J., Jr., Abner J. Mikva, and Geoffrey R. Stone. 1988. "Tributes to J. Skelly Wright." Yale Law Journal 98 (December).

Brown, John R., et al. 1989. "In Memoriam: Judge J. Skelly Wright." George Washington Law Review 57 (May).

Miller, Arthur S., and Jeffrey H. Bowman. 1983. "Judge J. Skelly Wright and the Administrative Process: Activism or Passivism—Or Both?" New England Law Review 18 (fall).

Monroe, Bill. 1988. "In Memoriam: J. Skelly Wright." Harvard Law Review 102 (December).

Wright, Helen Patton. 1995. My Journey: Recollections of the First Seventy Years. Chevy Chase, Md.: Posterity Press.


School Desegregation.