Judge John Minor Wisdom was laid to rest on May 17. It would have been his 94th birthday. It's possible that you have never heard of him, but he will be counted as one of the most important federal judges in U.S. history. It was he who wrote the decision that forced the admission of James Meredith as the first black student to attend Ole Miss. Judge Wisdom accused university officials of a "carefully calculated campaign of delay, harassment and masterly inactivity."
That was just the beginning. In cases involving school desegregation, voter registration, jury selection, and access to public parks, playgrounds and swimming pools, Wisdom helped break down the barriers of racial segregation. Opponents derisively referred to Wisdom and three other like-minded Fifth Circuit Judges as "The Four." Judge Wisdom considered the designation a mark of honor. He believed that once the Supreme Court had weighed in for desegregation, especially in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, it was up to the lower courts to implement that decision. "We acted," he said, "because if we hadn't acted there would have been a vacuum."
Judge Wisdom and his family were harassed for his decisions. "The telephone used to ring for a couple of years from 2:00 to 4:00 in the morning. We had two dogs poisoned. We had two rattlesnakes thrown into the yard," he said. But in typical Wisdom style, he also played down the threats against him. "They were small rattlers," he recalled.
More significantly, though Wisdom was recognized as a brilliant legal scholar, his civil rights decisions kept him from being appointed to the Supreme Court. He took it in stride and relished telling how Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell had reportedly responded to the very suggestion: "That crazy s.o.b. He would be worse than Earl Warren!"
What was remarkable about the judge was that he had every reason to uphold the status quo rather than change it. He came from an old New Orleans family. His father was said to have marched in Robert E. Lee's funeral procession. But, as President Clinton said when he presented Judge Wisdom with the Medal of Freedom in 1993, "He was a son of the Old South who became an architect of the New South."
Wisdom founded a law firm that is still thriving today. But he was at heart a public servant.
During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps Office of Legal Procurement. He became a Republican in the late 190s while an undergraduate at Tulane because he believed that the Democratic dominance Huey Long established had been a disaster for the state of Louisiana, perpetuating a legacy of corruption. In 1952, at the Republican National Convention, Wisdom helped ensure the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower for president.
My respect for Judge Wisdom's accomplishments grows even as I sit at my desk, sifting through the piles of biographical material about him I have accumulated over the years. But I don't think my love for him could increase any more.
I was one of the fortunate ones who knew the private man as well as the public. I first met him in 1971, when my boyfriend--now my husband--had the amazing good fortune to be selected as one of the judge's law clerks. To Judge Wisdom and his wife Bonnie, a Shakespearean scholar and opera buff, law clerks and their mates became family members.
The Wisdoms would visit us several times a year in Washington, and we would use any excuse to pay a call on them in New Orleans. The judge's kindness was legendary, and his intellect was keen. He devoured books on the law and dozens of other topics.
Over the years the awards heaped up. The Federal Court House in New Orleans was named for him. But his sense of humor, and the twinkle in his blue eyes, never dimmed. He was once asked if he considered himself a "bon vivant." "Well, I am not really a bon vivant," he replied, "because a bon vivant I think of as a connoisseur of wines. I am a connoisseur of Scotch whiskey...and try to inculcate it in my law clerks so they won't get too involved with musty volumes of law."
Pressed to say how he would like to be remembered as a judge, he said simply, "as one who attempted to judge according to his conscience and the law and was influential in bringing about an improvement in the social life of this country."
There is no epitaph more fitting.
By Rita Braver
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