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The Federal Paper Chase: Judges' Papers in the Manuscript Division

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama

District courts are federal trial courts that preside over civil and criminal cases under their jurisdiction. Appeals of their decisions appear before the court of appeals for their circuit.

Based in New Orleans, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana is one of three district courts for the state of Louisiana. The Eastern District consists of the following parishes: Assumption, Jefferson, Lafourche, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Terrebonne, and Washington. Appeals for this court are heard by judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama is one of three federal district courts for the state. The district is further divided into three regions, Eastern, Northern, and Southern comprising twenty-three counties. Appeals of the Middle District Court were heard by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals until 1981 when the Circuit was divided into two circuits. Appeals for the Middle District Court are now heard by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

This page contains descriptions of the papers of judges from the federal district courts for the Eastern District of Louisiana and the Middle District of Alabama held by the Manuscript Division.

Frank M. Johnson Papers

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Photograph of the Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, 15 Lee Street, Montgomery, Alabama. November 13, 2005. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“The dignity of the court has to be and must be maintained in order to have confidence of the people in the court,” Judge Frank M. Johnson told Bill Moyers in a 1980 interview found in his collection in the Manuscript Division. “You can’t operate the court like you do a three-ring circus. You can not permit anyone to unduly transgress on the authority of the court and still maintain its dignity …” From his position as judge on the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama (1955-1979) to his time on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (1979-1981) to his tenure on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (1981-1999 ) to his role as a member of the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals (1972-1982), Johnson affected great change on Alabama, the South, and the nation on a variety of issues and policies.

Most known for his cases involving desegregation such as Browder v. Gayle (Montgomery Bus Boycott) and Williams v. Wallace (related to the March on Selma), Johnson also shaped reform in Alabama prisons (Pugh v. Locke and James v. Wallace) and mental institutions (Wyatt v. Stickney), which later influenced efforts nationally. Although regarded as a “law and order” jurist, Johnson paid great attention to the rights of the poor, mentally ill, and imprisoned, all of which is documented in the Frank M. Johnson Papers. In an address to the Human Rights Committee for the Alabama Prison System, whom he appointed to oversee state prison conditions, he stated: “[W]hen practices within a prison system result in the deprivation of basic elements of adequate medical treatment and care and deprivation of living conditions that humane concepts require being afforded even to animals, then, … such practices violate constitutional guarantees and federal courts must act to provide relief.” Much like the papers of Judge Gerhard Alden Gesell, Johnson's collection contains valuable materials for scholars focusing on the expansion and reform of the nation's prison system or, as some historians now refer to it, the carceral state.

Materials in the collection are robust and include dockets, case files, correspondence, memoranda, orders, briefs, motions, depositions, transcripts, opinions, interviews, reports, news clippings, and printed matter. Notably correspondence throughout the collection features discussion of legal issues and case law between lawyers, jurists, and other legal professionals as well as letters from the public regarding the same. Correspondents include Warren E. Burger, Emanuel Celler, Paul Bryant, Harry A. Blackmun, John C. Godbold, Ricahrd T. Rives, Walter Mondale, Huey Newton, John Doar, Earl Warren, Vernon E. Jordan, Robert F. Kennedy, and numerous other legal and political figures.

Of note for researchers focusing on energy policy, are Johnson’s papers pertaining to his work for the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals from 1972 to 1982. The collection also contains a great deal of material relating to energy regulation specifically in relation to the Emergency Petroleum Act of 1973.

Finally, for scholars interested in true crime, Johnson presided over the death penalty appeals of serial killer Ted Bundy. These files are located in court of appeals case files for the Eleventh Circuit.

The following collection title links to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. A link to the collection finding aid is included when available.

J. Skelly Wright Papers

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Waterfront, New Orleans, Louisiana. Between 1980 and 2006. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As more than one legal observer noted, J. Skelly Wright might have been one of the most hated figures in twentieth century New Orleans history. Due in large part to several opinions issued by Wright dating from 1950 to 1962, in which he effectively desegregated much of public life in the Crescent City, his critics derided him as “Saint Skelly” or “Judas Scalawag.” Wright was hung in effigy on several occasions, once to the standing applause of the Louisiana House of Representatives: "[W]hen a coffin bearing a coffee-colored doll named 'Smelly Wright' was carried through the state capital, nearly all of the legislators stood up and cheered."1

In retrospect, however, others, such as his former law clerk and later Dean of the University of Chicago Law School Geoffrey Stone argued Wright’s jurisprudence was the expression of America’s most treasured ideals. “A central component of Judge Wright's understanding of legal doctrine was his insistence that justice should drive the scope and operation of legal technicalities-and not the reverse,” Stone writes. “Judge Wright thought of the law not as a body of infinitely manipulable logical abstractions, but as the living embodiment of our society's highest aspiration.”2 Through his rulings as a judge first on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, 1949-1962, and later on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 1962-1987, Wright successfully expanded civil rights, the rights of the accused and civil liberties. In addition, his rulings in administrative, maritime, environmental and civil law also established lasting precedents.

In 1948, President Harry Truman appointed Wright as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana. One year later, he ascended to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. From this position Wright cut his proverbial teeth on some of the toughest civil rights cases of the era. Four years prior to Brown v. Board of Education, Wright ruled against Louisiana State University and its law school's whites only admission policies in Wilson v. Board of Supervisors (1950). The following year he extended his opinion to the Louisiana State University's medical and graduate schools in Foister v. Board of Supervisors (1951). However, his national acclaim, and condemnation, came with his 41 rulings between 1951 and 1962 in litigation known as Bush v. New Orleans Parish School Board. "In the end, Wright prevented the closing of the New Orleans public schools and upheld federal supremacy under the Constitution," wrote historian Jeffrey Brandon Morris. "He was the first district judge to place a school board under injunction and the first to draw up a plan of his own after the board dragged its feet."3 He issued several more rulings in the years that followed that desegregated that transit system, the parks, and sports. Local residents did not respond positively. Shortly after Wright ordered Louisiana's streetcars desegregated, a cross was set ablaze on his front lawn. Due to such circumstances and his general social and professional ostracization by New Orleans society, Wright "began to identify with others on the fringes of society - dissenters, minorities, and the poor - to challenge the status quo," Michael S. Bernick argued in a 1980 law review article.4

According to Morris, by the time Wright reached the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1962, he was already a legend and every bit the believer in an engaged and active court as his colleague and Chief Judge David L. Bazelon. "Even if courts cannot solve the problems that beset the inner city ... they and the legal system as a whole should play a significant part in that endeavor," he told the New York Times Magazine in 1969. In regard to jurisprudence, Wright aligned with the Court's left leaning judges: Bazelon, Henry White Edgerton and Charles Fahy.5

The collection consists largely of memoranda, correspondence, notes, reports, instructions to juries, and speeches documenting Wright’s career. Though a legal collection first, due to his position in both New Orleans and Washington D.C., the J. Skelly Wright Papers also provide perspective on the urban history of both cities during the duration of each judgeship particularly in the area of desegregation, rights of the accused, ;and Cold War America. Correspondence files in the Wright papers are voluminous and pertain to much of his career in both cities and include Hugo Lafayette Black, Abe Fortas, Wayne G. Borah, Fred W. Friendly, and Simon Ernest Sobeloff among others.

For researchers focusing on the history of civil rights, the judge’s segregation correspondence which consists of letters to Wright about his civil rights decisions from 1956 through 1962, reflect the deep emotional anguish felt by not only the people of Louisiana, but individuals throughout the United States regarding the issue. Wright’s decision in the aforementioned case Bush v. Orleans School Parish School Board led to the desegregation of the public schools in New Orleans, earning him the wrath and hatred of many in the local white community. Another major civil rights opinion, Hobson v. Hansen, by Wright as an appellate judge curbed discriminatory policies in the District of Columbia school system. In that case Wright sought to end de facto segregation in the public schools by ordering that education resources be equalized throughout Washington, D.C. Evidence of Wright's concern for the poor can be found in his opinion halting construction of the proposed Three Sisters Bridge in D.C. Federation of Civic Associations v. Volpe. Despite Congress' desire for the bridge's completion and due to the fact that residents of the city lacked congressional representation, continuing construction Wright wrote would "deprive 'an already voiceless minority of its important personal right to contest disruptive highway projects enjoyed by citizens generally."6

Wright issued numerous rulings from the bench regarding the rights of the accused and free speech. In regard to the former, his concurring opinion in Killough v. United States, upheld the "Due Process" theory of law enforcement in which police, prosecutors and others were held to the highest standards in their pursuit of justice. Coerced confessions or those resulting from illegal detention were, as Judge Fahy articulated in the majority opinion, the "fruit of the poisonous tree."7 Later, Wright struck down mandatory sentences for drug users in Watson v. United States and dissented in United States v. Moore arguing that drug addicts cannot be criminally responsible if due to drug use, the individual lacked substantial ability to conform his or her conduct to the law.8

In regard to issues of free speech, in 1969 (Women Strike for Peace v. Hickel) and 1972 (Women Strike for Peace v. Morton), Wright intervened declaring that the Department of Interior's denial of permits to protesters violated the First Amendment.9 When the Court, reversed a district court ruling by Judge Gerhard Gesell allowing for the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post in United States v. Washington Post, Wright dissented in the 2-1 ruling. "This is a sad day in America ... As if the long and sordid war in Southeast Asia had not already done enough harm to our people, it now issued to cut the heart of our free institutions and system of government," he argued.10

During the 1970s, the Court of Appeals issued arguably a majority of the decisions in the growing field of environmental law with Wright weiging in through several consequential opinions. In Calvert Cliffs Coordinating Committee v. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Wright penned one of the the Court's "farthest reaching decisions in the field," as the judge provided the "first major appellate interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and a milestone in environmental law." The law, Wright noted, "makes environmental protection a part of the mandate of every federal agency and department ... as much a part of their responsibility as is protection and promotion of the industries they regulate." In Wright's opinion, the Atomic Energy Commission's efforts to build a nuclear power plant 46 miles from the capital had failed to fully consider the law and the environmental consequences of its construction. The ruling ultimately established legal responsibility of government agencies to carry out NEPA's mission.11 In Wilderness Society v. Morton, he found the Interior Department's approval of an planned Alaska pipeline "inconsistent with the Mineral Land Leasing Act of 1920."12

Other interesting cases in the Court of Appeal case files relate to the presidency of the United States, including the Watergate burglary and coverup during the Nixon administration and John Hinckley’s arrest for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

  1. Michael S. Bernick, "The Unusual Odyssey of J. Skelly Wright," Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly Vol 7 No. 4 (Summer 1980): 972; Jeffrey Brandon Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice: A History of the Court of the District of Columbia Circuit (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001),196. Back to text
  2. Geoffrey Stone, "A Passion for Justice," Yale Law Journal, Vol. 98 No. 2 (December 1988): 213-219. Back to text
  3. Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice, 195. Back to text
  4. Bernick, "The Unusual Odyssey of J. Skelly Wright," 989. Back to text
  5. Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice, 196. Back to text
  6. Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice, 224-225. Back to text
  7. Ibid., 207. Back to text
  8. Ibid., 212. Back to text
  9. Bernick, "The Unusual Odyssey of J. Skelly Wright," 995. Back to text
  10. Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice, 270. Back to text
  11. Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice, 301-302. Back to text
  12. Bernick, "The Unusual Odyssey of J. Skelly Wright," 996. Back to text

The following collection title links to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. A link to the collection finding aid is included when available.