Greatness in a Lower Federal Court Judge: The Case of J. Skelly Wright
Author: Richard H. Fallon, Jr
In a poem entitled “A Psalm of Life,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:
Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footsteps on the sands of time . . . .
As much as—if not more than—any other lower federal court judge of his generation, J. Skelly Wright left large footsteps on the sands of time. As a district judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana from 1949 to 1962, he took a courageous leading role in desegregating the New Orleans schools. Braving social ostracism, death threats, and a cross-burning on his lawn, he brought about “not only the integration of the public schools in New Orleans but also the integration of universities, buses, parks, sporting events and voting lists, historic moves that reverberated elsewhere in the South in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the era of the civil rights campaigns.” As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1962 to 1988, Judge Wright wrote path-breaking opinions in a number of areas of the law. Many of his decisions attracted widespread academic commentary, most of it favorable but some critical. Welcoming the debates, Judge Wright published an accompanying stream of much-discussed articles in the nation’s foremost law reviews. When Wright died in 1988, tributes described him as among “the outstanding jurists of the nation’s history.” More than twenty- five years after Judge Wright’s death, he is less remembered, but surely not forgotten.
My principal aim in this short essay is to recall the work in the law for which Judge J. Skelly Wright is and deserves to be remembered. In substantial part, my reflections constitute a tribute. As a former law clerk to Judge Wright, I make no effort to disguise my admiration and affection for him. Nevertheless, my assessment will not lack critical bite. My ultimate interests include the qualities that can contribute to, and perhaps are necessary for, greatness in a lower-court judge.
For much of the essay, I shall talk of judicial greatness without seeking to identify the standards for measuring it. Proceeding more inductively than deductively, I shall first unhesitatingly characterize Skelly Wright as a great judge, based on his courage, his integrity, and his indisputable accomplishments. After having reached a somewhat intuitive judgment about Judge Wright’s greatness, however, the essay takes a more ruminative and occasionally a more critical turn. Reflecting briefly on the criteria by which greatness in a lower federal court judge ought to be measured, I shall distinguish the excellence of the good judge—who decides individual cases fairly and often narrowly—from the attributes of a great judge—who leaves, and typically sets out to leave, a broader impact on the direction of the law. The achievement of judicial greatness requires bold self-confidence, and it carries risks of hubristic over- reaching as well as the possibility of ennobling accomplishment. So recognizing, I shall argue that the aspiration to greatness is an ambivalent quality in a judge—even as I affirm my thankfulness that Judge J. Skelly Wright aspired to greatness, not just goodness.
In the essay’s final Part, I address a paradox about Judge Wright that reflection on the general criteria of judicial greatness brings dramatically to the fore. Judge Wright was personally modest and unassuming, embarrassed by praise and attention. Yet he sought determinedly to exert the greatest influence on the direction of the law that he could achieve as a lower court judge. In some of his work as a judge, he held himself rigidly bound by law and demanded that others accede to the law as judicially decreed. In other moments, however, Judge Wright was an unabashed legal Realist who sought to bend legal doctrine to his vision of social justice. In interesting ways, J. Skelly Wright was a man of contradictions. Those contradictions, I shall argue, were crucial to his greatness as a judge.