John Minor Wisdom

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John Minor Wisdom
Senior Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
In office
January 15, 1977 – May 15, 1999
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
In office
June 27, 1957 – January 15, 1977
Appointed by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Preceded by Wayne G. Borah
Succeeded by Alvin Benjamin Rubin
Personal details
Born John Minor Wisdom
(1905-05-17)May 17, 1905
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died May 15, 1999(1999-05-15) (aged 93)
New Orleans, Louisiana
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Bonnie Stewart Mathews Wisdom
Alma mater Isidore Newman School
Washington & Lee University A.B.
Tulane University Law School LL.B.
Occupation Attorney
Profession Jurist
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1942 – 1946
Rank Lieutenant Colonel

John Minor Wisdom (May 17, 1905 – May 15, 1999), one of the "Fifth Circuit Four", and a Republican from Louisiana, was a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit during the 1950s and 1960s, when that court became known for a series of crucial decisions that advanced the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. At that time, the Fifth Circuit included not only Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas (its jurisdiction since October 1, 1981), but also Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and the Panama Canal Zone.


Early life[edit]

John Minor Wisdom was born on May 17, 1905, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and graduated from the Isidore Newman School. In 1925, he received an Artium Baccalaureus degree from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. In 1929, he received a Bachelor of Laws degree from Tulane University Law School.

Brevard-Rice House

From 1947 to 1972 John Minor Wisdom lived at Brevard-Rice House, 1239 First Street, in New Orleans Garden District.


He was a United States Army Lieutenant Colonel from 1942 to 1946. He was in private practice of law in New Orleans from 1929 to 1957. He was an Adjunct professor of law, Tulane University, from 1938 to 1957.[1]

As a young man, he was a Democrat, but he left that party in reaction to what he perceived as the corrupt administration of Governor Huey Pierce Long, Jr. As the Republican National Committeeman from Louisiana, Wisdom was instrumental in securing the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago.[2] Wisdom was also credited for helping Eisenhower to win Louisiana in the 1956 general election, the first time Louisiana had voted Republican in 80 years. Eisenhower appointed Wisdom to the Fifth Circuit bench in 1957 in what was seen as a reward for his services.[3] Wisdom was nominated by President Eisenhower on March 14, 1957, to a seat vacated by Wayne G. Borah. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 26, 1957, and received his commission on June 27, 1957.[1]

He assumed senior status on January 15, 1977, but continued to hear cases until his death in 1999.[1] He was a member of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) from its creation in 1968 and was the Panel’s chairman from 1975 until 1978.[4] He served on the Special Court created under the Regional Rail Reorganization Act starting in 1975, becoming presiding judge from 1986, when Judge Henry Friendly retired, until 1996 when the Special Court was dissolved.[5] President Bill Clinton awarded Wisdom the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993. On May 25, 1994, the Fifth Circuit's headquarters in New Orleans was renamed the John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building.


He died on May 15, 1999.


Upon his death, he left all of his writings, papers, and a variety of other personal effects, to Tulane Law School, which now displays them in the law school building, Weinmann Hall. He also left a sizable collection of his personal Mardi Gras memorabilia to the University of New Orleans.

He is one of the subjects of the book Unlikely Heroes by Jack Bass, about the Southern Federal judges who helped implement the desegregation of the South.[6][7] A full-length biography, Champion of Civil Rights: Judge John Minor Wisdom,[8] was written by Professor Joel William Friedman of Tulane Law School, and was published in January 2009 by Louisiana State University Press.[9][10]

His former law clerks include U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander; Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; Judge Martin Leach-Cross Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana; Judge D. Brock Hornby of the United States District Court for the District of Maine; U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jerry Brown of the Eastern District of Louisiana; U.S. Magistrate Judge Viktor V. Pohorelsky of the Eastern District of New York; Justice Nora M. Manella of the California Court of Appeal; Professor Philip Frickey of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law; Professor Martha Field of Harvard Law School; Ricki Tigert Helfer, former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; Jack Weiss, Chancellor of Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center; Barry Sullivan, former dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law; and Gail B. Agrawal, dean of the University of Iowa College of Law.


"The Constitution is both color blind and color conscious. 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 government purpose."

- Wisdom, writing for the majority in U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 1967.


  1. ^ a b c John Minor Wisdom at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
  2. ^ Joel William Friedman, "Judge Wisdom and the 1952 Republican National Convention: Ensuring Victory for Eisenhower and a Two-Party System for Louisiana", Washington and Lee Law Review, vol. 53, no. 1 (1996).
  3. ^ "Reward for Wisdom," Time Magazine, March 25, 1957
  4. ^ Tulane Alumni Association, Distinguished Alumnus Award 1989
  5. ^ Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Special Railroad Court to Close Doors (November 1996)"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-04-13. Retrieved 2010-01-08. 
  6. ^ Jack Bass, Unlikely Heroes: The Dramatic Story of the Southern Judges of the Fifth Circuit who Translated the Supreme Court's Brown Decision Into a Revolution for Equality (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), ISBN 0-671-25064-7, ISBN 978-0-671-25064-5.
  7. ^ listing for Unlikely Heroes
  8. ^ Joel William Friedman, Champion of Civil Rights: Judge John Minor Wisdom (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), ISBN 978-0-8071-3384-2.
  9. ^ Champion of Civil Rights announcement Archived 2008-04-23 at the Wayback Machine. at LSU Press website.
  10. ^ Brett W. Curry, Review of Champion of Civil Rights: Judge John Minor Wisdom, Law and Politics Book Review vol. 19, no. 6, pp. 366-370 (2009).

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Wayne G. Borah
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Succeeded by
Alvin Benjamin Rubin