J. Skelly Wright

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J. Skelly Wright
Chief Judge of United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
In office
Preceded by David L. Bazelon
Succeeded by Carl E. McGowan
Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
In office
March 30, 1962 – August 6, 1988
Nominated by John F. Kennedy
Preceded by E. Barrett Prettyman
Succeeded by Douglas H. Ginsburg
Personal details
Born James Skelly Wright
(1911-01-14)January 14, 1911
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died August 6, 1988(1988-08-06) (aged 77)
Westmoreland Hills, Maryland

James Skelly Wright (January 14, 1911 – August 6, 1988) was a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and anti-segregationist. The J. Skelly Wright Professorship at Yale Law School, currently held by Heather Gerken, is named in his honor.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Wright was born in 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he lived for much of his early life. Wright attended Loyola University New Orleans where he received his undergraduate in 1932, and the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law where he received his law degree while studying part-time in 1936. While attending Loyola he was a member of Alpha Delta Gamma National Catholic Fraternity. He was an Assistant U.S. attorney of Eastern District of Louisiana from 1937 to 1942. He was a U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander from 1942 to 1945. Wright was an Assistant U.S. attorney of Eastern District of Louisiana from 1945 to 1947. He then served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans) from 1947 to 1949.[2] He then was in private practice of law in Washington, DC to 1948.

Career as a District Court judge[edit]

Judge Wright served at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana from 1949 to 1962, where he was an important leader in the battle for the desegregation of New Orleans area schools. In 1960, he struck down twenty-nine segregation laws passed by the state legislature, which had also named a committee headed by then Representative Risley C. Triche of Napoleonville to take over operation of Orleans Parish public schools. Wright's first desegregation order had been for the Louisiana State University Law School in 1951. His vigorous enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education, however, made him many enemies amongst the predominantly white political and business culture of New Orleans to the extent that his entire family was soon ostracized and isolated from much of New Orleans' society life.[3]

Career as a Court of Appeals judge[edit]

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy nominated Wright to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to fill a seat vacated by Judge E. Barrett Prettyman. Replacing Wright in New Orleans was the national civil defense director, Frank Burton Ellis, who filled the judicial slot for only three years before taking senior status. Ellis worked to slow some of Wright's civil rights rulings. On the court of appeals, Wright helped to protect the rights of African-Americans in Hobson v. Hansen (eliminating "tracking systems" in schools), and interpreting the concept of contract unconscionability in order to prevent the exploitation of the poor in Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co.[4] He created an implied warranty of habitability in Javins v. First National Realty Corp. (1970).[5] Wright served as Chief Judge of the DC Circuit between 1978-1981.

In 1986, Wright achieved senior status, his seat being succeeded by Douglas H. Ginsburg. Wright died in 1988 in Westmoreland Hills, Maryland. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote a memoriam for Judge Wright in the Harvard Law Review.

In popular culture[edit]

In Sherman Alexie's short story "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," the indignant judge referred to as "U.S. District Judge James Wright" presumably alludes to J. Skelly Wright. The sentence imposed upon Builds-the-Fire uses the phrase "racially motivated murder," which corresponds to Wright's historical involvement with racial justice.

Notable former clerks[edit]


  1. ^ http://opa.yale.edu/news/article.aspx?id=6188
  2. ^ http://www.justice.gov/usao/lae/former_usa.html.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ Judge James Skelly Wright. http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/skellywright_box.htm, accessed November 21, 2006.
  4. ^ James Wright. Answers.com. West's Encyclopedia of American Law, The Gale Group, Inc, 1998. http://www.answers.com/topic/james-wright, accessed November 22, 2006.
  5. ^ 428 F.2d 1071.

External links[edit]