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John Minor Wisdom

In office
1957 – 1977
(senior judge, 1977-1999)
Nominated by Dwight Eisenhower
Preceded by Wayne G. Borah
Succeeded by Alvin Benjamin Rubin

Born May 17, 1905(1905-05-17)
New Orleans, LA
Died May 15, 1999 (aged 93)
New Orleans, LA
Spouse(s) Bonnie Stewart Mathews
Alma mater Isidore Newman School, Washington & Lee (1925) and Tulane University Law School (1929)

John Minor Wisdom (May 17, 1905 - May 15, 1999), one of the "Fifth Circuit Four", and a liberal 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 decisions crucial in advancing the civil rights of African-Americans. 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.

Wisdom was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and graduated from the prestigious Isidore Newman School. He received an A.B. from Washington and Lee University in 1925. He received an LL.B. from Tulane Law School in 1929. He was in the United States Army Lieutenant Colonel from 1942 to 1946. He was in private practice of law in New Orleans, Louisiana from 1929 to 1957. He was an Adjunct professor of law, Tulane University from 1938 to 1957.[1]

As a young man, Wisdom was a Democrat, but he left that party in reaction to what he perceived as the corrupt administration of Louisiana governor Huey Long. He was instrumental in securing the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower for the 1952 Republican Presidential nomination and was also given credit for helping Eisenhower 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.[2] 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]

Wisdom assumed senior status on January 15, 1977, but continued to hear cases until his death in 1999.[1] Judge Wisdom was a member of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) from its creation in 1968 and was then the Panel’s chairman from 1975 until 1978. [3], and he served on the Special Court created under the Regional Rail Reorganization Act starting in 1975, becoming presiding judge from 1986, when Judge Friendly retired, until 1996 when the Special Court was dissolved. [4] President Bill Clinton awarded Wisdom the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.[5] On May 25, 1994, the Fifth Circuit's headquarters in New Orleans was renamed the John Minor Wisdom United States Court of Appeals Building.

Judge Wisdom's 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 Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana; Judge David 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; Ricki Tigert Helfer, former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; Jack Weiss, newly appointed Chancellor of Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center; Professor Barry Sullivan, former dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law; and Gail B. Agrawal, dean of the University of Kansas School of Law.

Upon his death, Wisdom left all of his writings, papers, and a variety of other personal effects, to Tulane University Law School, which now proudly displays them in the law school building Weinmann Hall.

Wisdom 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]


"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. ^ "Reward for Wisdom," Time Magazine, March 25, 1957.
  3. ^ Tulane Alumni Association, Distinguished Alumnus Award 1989 [1]
  4. ^ Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Special Railroad Court to Close Doors (November 1996)[2]
  5. ^ Official Site of the Presidential Medal of Freedom biography page for John Minor Wisdom
  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 0671250647, ISBN 9780671250645.
  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 at LSU Press website.

External links



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