Judge John Minor Wisdom
(United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit)
Louisiana Law: The Troubled Years
On March 23, 1994, the Honorable Judge John Minor Wisdom, Senior Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, presented the 22nd Tucker Lecture.
Judge Wisdom was appointed to the federal appellate bench in 1957, and since then, he has written a host of legal opinions that have consistently displayed the quality that his name so aptly suggests. For almost 40 years, these opinions have flowed from his pen in a steady, reliable stream – always to the interest, often the delight, and sometimes to the consternation of many of those assembled here.
Judge Wisdom was born in 1905 in New Orleans. His career in the law began just before the great stock market crash of 1929. It was in that year that he received his LL.B. from Tulane University Law School, graduating as a member of the Tulane Law Review and the Order of the Coif. He practiced law from 1929-1957 with the New Orleans firm of Wisdom and Stone (later Wisdom, Stone, Pigman, and Benjamin). His accomplishment of special note while in private practice include authorship of the Louisiana Trust Code of 1938, and successfully arguing before the United States Supreme Court the case of Schwegmanny Brothers v. Calvert Distillers, 341 U.S. 384 (1951), which ultimately led to the end of the practice of “fair trade” retail pricing
If, upon being appointed to the federal appellate bench in 1957, Judge Wisdom hoped to enjoy a quieter life than the “hurly burly of private practice” had permitted him, he was soon to be disappointed. It was only a few short years after he joined the Fifth Circuit that the judge found himself at the center of the legal maelstrom created by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. During that decade, Judge Wisdom and his fellow judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stood virtually alone against the prevailing ethic of their time and place as they struggled to move the South into compliance with the federal Constitution.
Judge Wisdom was the author of many of the judicial opinions by which that great change of paradigms was accomplished. In 1962, for example, he wrote the opinion of the Fifth Circuit in the celebrated case of Meredith v. Fair, 298 F. 2d 696 and 313 F.2d 532 (1962), by which the University of Mississippi was desegregated. And the very next year, in United States v. State of Louisiana, 225 F. Supp. 353 (E.D. La. 1963), aff’d 380 U.S. 145 (1965), the court, via an opinion written by Judge Wisdom, struck down Louisiana’s “understanding” test for voting, thereby enormously expanding the voting rights of Blacks in this state. Likewise, in the landmark school integration case of Jefferson County Board of Education v. United States, 372 F 2d 836, on rehearing, 380 F. 2d 385, cert. denied 389 U.S. 840 (1968), the judge authored the appellate opinion that called for school desegregation by affirmative action.
In his historic civil rights opinions from the 1960s, Judge Wisdom showed a prescient gift for discerning and even anticipating jurisprudential trends, and an ability to craft language that would embody those ideas in forms that the United States Supreme Court would approve. No one should have been surprised at his possession of those gifts, even the evidence provided by his opinion in the 1959 case of Offshore Company v. Robeson, 266 F. 2d 769 (5th Cir. 1959), the landmark decision known to all admirable lawyers in which Judge Wisdom crafted definitions of the terms “seaman” and “vessel” that are still used today in adjudicating Jones Act claims.
Throughout his life, Judge Wisdom showed an energetic ability to rise to the demands of his responsibilities. This high level of energy is still very apparent in him, although he is now 88 years of age. In recognition, Judge Wisdom received, together with his wife, the Strength of Age Award of the LSU Medical Center in New Orleans. He received a number of other awards, including an honorary LL.D. degree from Harvard University. Perhaps his greatest honor, however, has been the President’s Medal of Freedom, which President Clinton conferred upon him in 1993.
There is another accomplishment for which Louisiana civilian lawyers might wish to honor the judge. As members of a minority of our own within the United States legal community, we are perhaps ideally placed to appreciate the following famous comment, which the judge has occasionally delivered from the bench during his long judicial career.
“When the Anglos and Saxons were howling savages painted blue and eking out an existence by fishing in the fens of England, the great civil law tradition was already one thousand years old on the continent.”
It is hard to imagine any more spirited-or truer-defense of our beleaguered civil law than that.