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J Skelly Wright

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Appointed by  Harry S. Truman
Preceded by  Wayne G. Borah
Preceded by  David L. Bazelon
Name  J. Wright

Nominated by  John F. Kennedy
Role  Judge
Preceded by  E. Barrett Prettyman
Succeeded by  Carl E. McGowan

Full Name  James Skelly Wright
Born  January 14, 1911 New Orleans, Louisiana (1911-01-14)
Died  August 6, 1988, Westland Hills, Maryland, United States
Education  Loyola University New Orleans, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

Currie Lecture 2012 | Heather Gerken, Exit, Voice and Disloyalty

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 during the Civil Rights Movement. The J. Skelly Wright Professorship at Yale Law School, currently held by Heather K. Gerken, is named in his honor.


Early life and education

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. He then was in private practice of law in Washington, DC to 1948.

Career as a District Court judge

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 during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis. 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 (1954), 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.

Career as a Court of Appeals judge

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. He created an implied warranty of habitability in Javins v. First National Realty Corp. (1970). Wright served as Chief Judge of the DC Circuit between 1978-1981.

In 1986, Wright took senior status, 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

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

  • Keith P. Ellison - U.S. District Judge, United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas
  • Donald B. Verrilli Jr. - Solicitor General of the United States
  • Susan Estrich - Lawyer and Fox News personality
  • Michael C. Harper - Professor at Boston University School of Law
  • Sally Katzen - Former official in the Clinton White House
  • Victoria Radd Rollins - Former official in the Clinton White House
  • Michael W. McConnell - Former U.S. Circuit Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
  • L. Michael Seidman - Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center
  • David O. Stewart—Author and retired lawyer
  • Randall Kennedy - Professor at Harvard Law School and author
  • Carol Steiker - Professor at Harvard Law School
  • Richard Fallon - Professor at Harvard Law School
  • Robert Weisberg - Professor at Stanford Law School
  • John Herfort - Partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP
  • Geoffrey R. Stone - Professor at University of Chicago Law School
  • Richard Cotton, former Executive Vice President and General Counsel, NBC Universal
  • Raymond C. Fisher, Senior Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
  • Abraham D. Sofaer, former U.S. District Judge, Southern District of New York; former Legal Advisor, State Department
  • Curtis Hessler, former Executive Vice President, Times Mirror Corporation; former Vice Chairman, Unisys Corporation
  • Thomas C. Grey, Professor at Stanford Law School
  • Peter J. Kalis, Chairman and Global Managing Partner, K&L Gates
  • John F. Walsh, United States Attorney, District of Colorado
  • References

    J. Skelly Wright Wikipedia

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