Wisdom, John Minor

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Wisdom, John Minor

John Minor Wisdom, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, was one of the most influential jurists of the Civil Rights era. He was prominent among southern judges who endured political pressures and physical threats for enforcing brown v. board of education and for making other rulings that advanced the fight for equality under the law. (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 [1954], was the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that held racial Segregation in public education to be against the law.)

Wisdom and his prominent colleagues on the Fifth Circuit court (Judges John R. Brown of Houston, Texas, Richard T. Rives of Montgomery, Alabama, and Elbert Parr Tuttle of Atlanta, Georgia) were known derisively as "The Four" by those who disapproved of their work. Under their gavels, Jim Crow Laws were declared unconstitutional, African Americans were granted voting rights, racial discrimination in jury selection was curbed, and state Colleges and Universities were desegregated. Though proud of his work, Wisdom was quick to point out that he was just one of many judges responsible for advancing the fight for civil rights in the old South. And in many ways, he was an unlikely individual to figure so prominently in the cause.

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17, 1905, Wisdom was a product of the old South, and he grew up accustomed to the privileges and prejudices of the white aristocracy. His father, Mortimer Norton Wisdom, had been a pall-bearer for General Robert E. Lee. His mother, Adelaide Labatt Wisdom, limited her son's youthful associations to people of his own social class and standing. It was not until Wisdom enrolled at Virginia's Washington and Lee University in 1921 that he was exposed to a more diverse cross section of the population and began to develop a broader view of the world. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1925.

Wisdom entered the law school at Tulane University in 1925. He completed his studies in the spring of 1929 and was admitted to the Louisiana bar the same year. After law school, he joined several classmates to establish a New Orleans law practice. The firm of Wisdom, Stone, Pigman, and Benjamin endured in one variation or another for 30 years.

Wisdom established another enduring union on October 24, 1931, when he married Bonnie Stewart Mathews. They had three children.

By the late 1930s, Wisdom was combining careers in law and education. He was named adjunct professor of law at Tulane University law school in 1938 (a position he held until 1957). It was during this period that Wisdom began to see the importance of providing equal educational opportunities to all members of society. His views were affirmed during the World War II years when he worked closely, for the first time, with poor and undereducated southern whites and blacks. Wisdom served in the U.S. Army Air Force from 1942 to 1946. Before the war's end, he had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and been awarded the Legion of Merit.

After World War II, Wisdom returned to Louisiana and the practice of law. He also entered the political arena. By 1952 he was a member of the Republican National Committee for Louisiana and was sometimes called the man who made dwight d. eisenhower president of the United States. At the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Wisdom led a fight to have Louisiana's Eisenhower delegates seated in place of those committed to Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft.Wisdom's success was the turning point in Eisenhower's bid for the nomination.

In 1954, Eisenhower named Wisdom to the President's Commission on Anti-Discrimination in Government Contracts. His work on the commission earned him national respect, and in 1957 he was appointed, again by Eisenhower, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Wisdom served the court and the nation for more than 30 years, as a judge from 1957 to 1977, and then as a senior judge. Wisdom assumed senior, or semi-retired, status on January 15, 1977.

In his years on the bench Wisdom participated in deciding almost five thousand cases, signed one thousand published majority opinions, and wrote nearly as many unnumbered per curiams and unpublished opinions. Colleagues stated that his place in history was assured by his unique ability to clearly express the court's opinions. Many of Wisdom's opinions defined civil rights law in the United States. In Meredith v. Fair, 298 F.2d 696 (1962), Wisdom desegregated the University of Mississippi. In United States v. Louisiana, 225 F. Supp. 353 (E.D. La. 1963), he affirmed the duty of federal courts to protect federally guaranteed rights and eloquently discussed the Disfranchisement of African Americans in Louisiana. And, in Dombrowski v. Pfister, 227 F. Supp. 556 (E.D. La. 1964), rev'd, 380 U.S. 479 85 S. Ct. 1116, 14 L. Ed. 2d 22 (1965), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his powerful dissent and enjoined the state of Louisiana from using legislative and judicial processes to harass civil rights leaders with unwarranted prosecution.

History and the law have accorded landmark status to at least two of Wisdom's cases. In United States v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 372 F.2d 836; 380 F.2d 385 (en banc); cert. denied, 389 U.S. 840 (1967), he used Affirmative Action to desegregate schools "lock, stock, and barrel." And, in Local 189, United Papermakers and Paperworkers v. United States, 416 F.2d 980 (1969), cert. denied, 397 U.S. 919 (1976), he used a "rightful place" theory to prohibit the awarding of jobs based on a racially discriminatory seniority system.

Wisdom's expertise went beyond civil rights. He wrote landmark opinions in the fields of admiralty, antitrust, evidence, and Labor Law. He also wrote the majority opinion in the first appellate case to hold a manufacturer of insulation material liable for failing to warn workers of the dangers associated with asbestos (Borel v. Fibreboard Products Corp., 493 F.2d 1076 [1973], cert. denied, 439 U.S. 1129).

"To avoid conflict with the equal protection clause, a classification that denies a benefit, causes harm, or imposes a burden must not be based on race. In that sense, the Constitution is color blind. But the Constitution is color conscious to prevent discrimination being perpetuated and to undo the effects of past discrimination. The criterion is the relevancy of color to a legitimate governmental purpose."
—John Minor Wisdom

In 1993, Wisdom was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President bill clinton. In 1996, he received the American Bar Association Medal, the highest honor awarded by the American Bar Association (ABA). Wisdom continued to sit on the Fifth Circuit until his death two days short of his 94th birthday on May 15, 1999, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Further readings

Friedman, Joel W. 1999."John Minor Wisdom: The Nobelest Tulanian of Them All." Tulane Law Review 74 (November).Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. 2002. "Four Louisiana Giants in the Law." Loyola Law Review 48 (summer).

Marshall, Burke. 2000."In Remembrance of Judges Frank M. Johnson Jr. and John Minor Wisdom." Yale Law Journal 109 (April).

Sullivan, Barry, et al. 1999."Tribute to John Minor Wisdom." Mississippi Law Journal 69 (fall).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.