Robert R. Merhige, Jr.

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Robert R. Merhige Jr. (February 5, 1919 – February 18, 2005) was a federal judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia who is known for his rulings on desegregation in the 1970s.

Education and early career[edit]

Born in New York City, Merhige attended High Point College in North Carolina and received a LL.B. from the University of Richmond's T.C. Williams School of Law in 1942. He received a LL.M. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1982. He served in the Army Air Forces from 1942 to 1945, flying many missions in B-17 bombers, during World War II.[1]

Merhige was in private practice as a trial lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, from 1945 to 1967. He taught law at Smithdeal-Massey Business College from 1945 to 1948, at the University of Virginia from 1968 to 1972 (as a lecturer), and at the University of Richmond T.C. Williams School of Law from 1973 to 1976 (as an adjunct professor). Merhige was a vice president and general counsel, Crass Coca-Cola Bottling Company from 1952 to 1955.

Judicial career[edit]

On July 17, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Merhige to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia vacated by John D. Butzner, Jr., who had been appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, as had his predecessor, Albert V. Bryan. On August 18, 1967, the United States Senate confirmed Merhige's appointment, and he received his commission on August 25, 1967.[2]

Although the first stage of Massive Resistance to desegregation of Virginia's schools was over (which even included U.S. District Judge C. Sterling Hutcheson retiring from the bench rather than enforce Brown v. Board of Education), segregation remained.[3] Early in his long judicial career, Merhige ordered dozens of Virginia's school systems to desegregate, and for a time was considered the most hated man in Richmond—under 24-hour protection by the U.S. Marshals Service and with weekly protests at his home, his mother-in-law's cottage on his property burned to the ground, and his dog tied up and shot dead.[1] In January 1972 Merhige ruled that students in Henrico and Chesterfield counties in Virginia would have to be bused to the Richmond city schools in order to decrease the high percentage of black students in Richmond's schools. Critics focused on Judge Merhige personally, including noting that his own children were enrolled in private school and thus unaffected by his order. One of Merhige's orders in that case was overturned on appeal on June 6, 1972, but not before influencing that year's presidential primary in Miami Beach, Florida.[4] Merhige's courage and strength of character, as well as his preparation, courtesy, dedication to the rule of law and respect for the litigants before him ultimately turned that hatred into deep respect.[5][6]

In 1970 Judge Merhige ordered the University of Virginia to admit women in 1970. He also clarified the rights of pregnant women to keep their jobs, and with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Blackwell Shelley handled the complex products liability litigation and bankruptcy reorganization of the A.H. Robins Company concerning the Dalkon Shield.[7] Moreover, by 1988, some noticed that Merhige was one of the federal judges with the lowest percentage (5%) of being overruled by apppellate panels.

In 1968 Merhige ruled that the conflict in Vietnam was a war, whether or not it was a declared war, and denied the request of 96 Army reservists to avoid that combat.[1] Judge Merhige also presided over the complex litigation concerning Allied Chemical's discharges of kepone and other chemicals into the James River, approving the creation of an environmental trust fund.

Merhige authored the ruling of the three federal judge panel that rejected the appeals of Watergate criminals G. Gordon Liddy, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez and upheld their criminal convictions for breaking into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist.[1]

Merhige presided over the Greensboro massacre trials of members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party for killing Communist Workers Party members in 1979.[8]

Judge Merhige assumed senior status on November 30, 1986 but continued as a federal judge hearing and resolving cases for more than a dozen years.

Retirement, death and legacy[edit]

Merhige retired on June 8, 1998, and joined the law firm of Hunton & Williams in Richmond with a practice focusing on mediation.

Merhige died on February 18, 2005, at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia in Richmond after undergoing open heart surgery.[1]

In 2008, the new federal courthouse in Richmond (to which the district and bankruptcy courts and probation office moved)) was named to honor Merhige and Spottswood Robinson III, who fought many desegregation battles in Virginia before also becoming a distinguished federal judge.[9][10] In 1993, the building where they had practiced as lawyers and judges was renamed the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., United States Courthouse, after their longtime friend and colleague. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit continues to use that National Historic Landmark building.

The Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Richmond School of Law is named in his honor, as is the moot court room.[11] The William Taylor Muse Law Library at the University of Richmond holds his papers in its special collections.[12]


Other Sources[edit]

  • Ronald J. Bacigal, May it please the court: a biography of Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr (University Press of America, 1992)
  • Baliles, Gerald L. (April 2005). "Reflections: The Honorable Robert R. Merhige Jr." (PDF). Virginia Lawyer 53 (9): 26–27.