In many ways, Judge John Minor Wisdom’s was a life of contradiction. Though he is known today as a pioneering appellate judge who contributed to numerous civil rights advances for African Americans, few would have expected the genteel Eisenhower Republican to follow such a path. Born in the segregated South to a socially prominent Louisiana family, his father was a cotton broker and a Democrat. Wisdom was also one of the rare sons of the Bible Belt to have little use for organized religion (p.10). Moreover, even as Judge Wisdom advanced the cause of civil rights as a member of the “Fifth Circuit Four,” breaking down racial barriers in opinion after opinion, he maintained memberships in racially restrictive clubs (p.xi). Ultimately, President Bill Clinton best summed up this tension when he awarded Judge Wisdom the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994: “He is a son of the Old South who became an architect of the new South” (p.374).
As one of the twentieth century’s most formidable jurists, John Minor Wisdom has not wanted for scholarly attention. Wisdom’s dedication to enforcing the promise of BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION merited his inclusion as one of Jack Bass’ (1990) “Unlikely Heroes.” Peltason (1971) termed him one of the “Fifty-Eight Lonely Men” charged with carrying out school desegregation in the South. Despite the scholarly interest Wisdom has engendered, Joel William Friedman’s judicial biography paints a comprehensive portrait of the man, based on personal interviews, historical materials, and – most importantly – Wisdom’s judicial opinions themselves. In doing so, Friedman has produced a thoughtful, evenhanded appraisal of Wisdom’s life and work – topics surely deserving of a stand-alone biography....
Joel William Friedman’s CHAMPION OF CIVIL RIGHTS: JUDGE JOHN MINOR WISDOM provides an intimate picture of “one of the most progressive and influential federal judges of the twentieth century” (p.2). In particular, Friedman’s work effectively conveys three of Judge Wisdom’s most central characteristics – his eloquence, his emphasis on practicality, and his general belief in the limited role of the judge.
Wisdom was, above all, pragmatic (pp.115, 216). When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once asked Judge Wisdom “whether it was better for a judge to be theoretical or practical,” Wisdom chose the latter (p.285) – and he displayed that trademark practicality in opinion after opinion. Perhaps the best example of his pragmatism is contained in UNITED STATES v. JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION where he succinctly noted, “The only school desegregation plan that meets constitutional standards is one that works” (p.211). Such statements, Justice William Brennan would later note, displayed Wisdom’s ability to “forthrightly ground [his opinions] in practical realities, rather than platitudinous theory” (p.212).
Friedman’s work also conveys Wisdom’s recognition of the limits on the judiciary. Wisdom never viewed his judicial role as “that of reformer” (p.191), and Friedman even notes that Wisdom believed “judicial micromanagement of school desegregation” to be “perilously close to the perimeter of the judicial function” (p.206). Finally, in an observation that echoes contemporary notions of “judicial minimalism” (Sunstein 1999), Friedman concludes that, “where a case could be decided on its specific facts, [Wisdom] felt no urgency to address far-reaching constitutional questions” (p.298).
The full review is here.
Image: John Minor Wisdom.