Remembering an icon, and longing to make America great again

George Leighton was a legal giant, appointed to the federal district court with bipartisan support. But could he even have been confirmed today?

Cook County

George N. Leighton in 2012 as the Cook County criminal court building in Chicago is renamed in his honor

The death last week of the iconic George N. Leighton at 105 was an occasion for both sadness and remembrance of things past, for a time when Republicans — to wit, Senator Charles H. Percy and President Gerald R. Ford — could make someone like Leighton a federal judge.

Of course there was no one quite “like” Leighton, who was unique beyond the sense that everyone is.

Growing up poor in Massachusetts, where as a child he weeded cranberry bogs, young George was admitted to Howard University on the strength of an essay, even though he had not graduated from high school.

Upon graduation from Howard, he won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1946, after an interruption to serve as an infantry captain and receive a Bronze Star during World War II.

Promptly thereafter he moved to Chicago — for no reason other than it was the home of the nation’s only black congressman, William Dawson — where he distinguished himself as a criminal-defense and civil-rights lawyer, chaired the Chicago Chapter of the NAACP, became active in Democratic politics, served a dozen years on the Circuit Court of Cook County, and then became the first African-American member of the Illinois Appellate Court.

But by 1975, when he was nominated for the U.S. District Court in Chicago by President Ford at Senator Percy’s behest, there were several items on Leighton’s dossier that, at any subsequent time, would render the very notion of him going on the federal bench unthinkable.

For starters, in 1951, he had been indicted for inciting a riot — certainly not a great bullet point for any resume.

Never mind that the charge had been dropped—owing to able representation by Thurgood Marshall, and never mind that the underlying conduct—representing African American bus driver in an effort to move his family into all-white suburban Cicero, resulting in white mob action and property damage—was more deserving of an award than a criminal charge.

In two matters that raised a specter of guilty by association, Leighton also had represented every prisoner on Illinois death row and had brought a civil case that curtailed the FBI’s surveillance of his client—mob boss Sam Giancana. As a Circuit Court judge, Leighton acquitted two 23-year-old Hispanic men of aggravated battery of a white police officer, whom Leighton held had engaged in “an unlawful arrest by the use of excessive force”—a determination that was roundly blasted by J. Edgar Hoover and noted criminologist Fred E. Inbau, who deemed the acquittal a “display of judicial ignorance, or deceit.”

We can only imagine how some of the foregoing would have gone down after, say, 1999, when Congress rejected the nomination of Ronnie L. White for a federal judicial appointment because White, as a member of the Missouri Supreme Court, had concurred in decisions reversing capital cases.

Fortunately, the Percy-Ford era was a kinder, gentler time than the ensuing ones.

It was a time when right was the opposite of wrong and could prevail as such, rather than as the first half of a compound modifier that characterizes most Republicans in Congress and in and around the White House today.

Would it not be wonderful if federal judicial selection could be made great again, as it was when it blessed America with the appointment of a judge who was truly deserving of his honorific — the Honorable George N. Leighton?

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch.