James Benton Parsons

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James Benton Parsons (August 13, 1911 – June 19, 1993) was the first African-American to serve as a United States federal judge.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Parsons received a B.A. from Millikin University in 1934. He was in the United States Naval Reserve during World War II from 1942 to 1945, and received an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1946, followed by a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1949. He was in private practice in Chicago, Illinois from 1949 to 1951, also serving as an assistant corporation counsel during that time. He was an assistant United States Attorney of the Northern District of Illinois from 1951 to 1960. He was a judge on the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois from 1960 to 1961.

On August 9, 1961, Parsons was nominated by President John F. Kennedy to a seat on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois vacated by Judge Philip L. Sullivan. Parsons was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 30, 1961, and received his commission the same day. He was the first black person given the prestigious appointment to the Federal bench, which under Article III is a life term.

In 1974, author Joseph Goulden wrote a book about Federal judges called The Benchwarmers that was very critical of Parsons. Goulden claimed that a poll of Chicago lawyers revealed that only 15% had a favorable opinion of the judge. Goulden also claimed that Parsons had sat on the bench while drunk and that an overwhelming number of lawyers complained that he was unable to understand the issues in complex cases.

Nevertheless, Parsons served as chief judge from 1975 to 1981, assuming senior status on August 30, 1981. Parsons served in that capacity until his death, in 1993, in Chicago.