A life in the law: George N. Leighton, 1912-2018
George Leighton has been described as a fearless litigator and a fierce advocate for his clients and causes in which he believed. Friends and colleagues also described George Leighton as a gentleman, a scholar with a passionate love of the law, and a man with an infectious sense of humor who always had a smile. A man with so many accomplishments it is difficult to list them all.
This history is through Judge Leighton’s words when he was initiated as an honorary member of the Chicago Alumni Chapter of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity in October 2009 and through the recollections of friends and colleagues.
I don’t know how many of you have ever kneeled on a cranberry bog, but let me tell you what happens. Cranberry vines are like thistles. So, I was there, on my knees, weeding and the hot August sun was beating me on my head when I got the idea that I wanted to be a lawyer. I have no explanation of how it came to me to be a lawyer. I had no kin folk who had been a lawyer. I had never spoken to a lawyer. I didn’t know what lawyers did for a living. The only explanation I had was that in the heat of the day and the pain in my knees from the vines, it must have occurred to me that there just had to be a better way of earning a living.
Without ever entering high school George Leighton was accepted at Howard University.
Howard told me I could go attend classes if I wanted to, pay my own tuition and if I proved I could do college work without having gone through high school, Howard would consider making me a candidate for a degree. And, that’s what happened, I was on the Dean’s Honor Roll from day one until June 7, 1940, when I was graduated Magna Cum Laude, member of Phi Beta Kappa, and had a commission in the Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Leighton served in World War II, graduated from Harvard Law School, and became licensed to practice law in Massachusetts in 1946. In October that year, he came to Chicago looking for the chance to practice law.
So, when I got here, I had a license. That gave me a foothold in the south side of Chicago - Drexel Boulevard, 47th Street, 49th Street. That’s where I started. And, the people of Chicago accepted me just as I was—unknown, untested, uprooted. They began hiring me in small cases like forcible entry and detainer, divorce. Then I became involved in criminal cases; I was at 26th and California. And, my practice improved—all because of the people of Chicago.
That is Judge Leighton’s description of his start and growth of his practice as a Chicago lawyer. But, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans paints a historical perspective of that time. “Judge Leighton came to Chicago in 1946 at a time when an African-American man could neither rent an office downtown nor hail a taxi in the loop. He made a name for himself as an attorney who fought for voting rights, integrated schools, fair housing and equal access to jury service.” Judge Evans called it “a fresh start for [Leighton] and a refreshing start for the community to have a lawyer with his expertise and commitment to fairness.”
After 18 years practicing law, being involved in the NAACP and any other organization he could join, and democratic politics as president of the Third Ward organization, the possibility of a judgeship opened.
Mayor Richard J. Daley called [and] asked me if I would be a candidate for judge of the Circuit Court of Cook county in the 1964 election. Anybody who knew anything about Chicago in 1964 would know that for a lawyer to receive a phone call from Mayor Richard J. Daley, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Cook County Democratic Party, asking him to be a candidate was the equivalent of that lawyer being elected by a landslide, right there and then. And so, I became a judge. And, it wasn’t long before I was on the Illinois Appellate Court. It was a phone call from Walter Schaeffer, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois, asking me if I would accept an assignment to the Illinois Appellate Court. And, I did. I served there for seven years. Then, I received a phone call from Charles Percy, Republican, senior Senator from Illinois. I, a lifetime Democratic liberal. He called to tell me he was going to recommend me to Gerald Ford, a Republican President. He nominated me. I went before the Republican-controlled Senate and was confirmed
George Leighton was the first African-American on the Illinois Appellate Court.
Former Chief Judge Marvin Aspen of the federal district court knew Judge Leighton for 60 years, as a colleague and before that as a lawye Judge Aspen said that in the first case he handled in his first job as a lawyer George Leighton was his opponent. Judge Aspen described George Leighton as a great lawyer, someone who always talked about the law with “a school boy’s enthusiasm.” Judge Aspen termed Leighton “fearless as a lawyer.” Not as a gunslinger or hired gun lawyer, “but as a lawyer fearless in fighting for principles.” He described Leighton as a “liberal and idealistic, a lawyer who considered the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as principles that should apply the same to everyone.” A man who was the same on and off the bench.
Another colleague, Judge Charles Kocoras, said Judge Leighton “had a federal judges mien about him.” Judge Kocoras described Judge Leighton as fitting his impression “of what a federal judge should look like physically, in character, and demeanor. Someone whose dignity manifested itself in his command of language and in his commanding presence.” Kocoras described George Leighton the Judge “as one who took the time to understand a case, clearly analyze the law and the issues, to be firm in his decisions and never waver or second guess those decisions.”
Attorney Kevin Forde recalled Judge Leighton as a man “who blessed the bench with dignity and pleasantness. He was a true gentleman with the dignity he brought to the robe.” Forde said Judge Leighton treated all lawyers the same, no matter what their level of experience.
As an attorney, George Leighton never shied away from unpopular cases or people. In the early 1950s, he assisted an African-American family in enforcing a lease to move into an apartment in Cicero. That case resulted in fierce opposition; the building was burned and there was a riot in the streets. Rather than charges against the rioters, attorney Leighton was indicted for inciting the riot. His defense attorney who got the indictment dismissed was a fellow NAACP attorney, Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Of all the 18 years I practiced law before I became a judge, I never had a client who paid me a fee, really. Just $100, $50, that was my lot until I represented Sam Giancana against J. Edgar Hoover. That’s true. That’s how it was. In other words, it does not all turn on money. It turns on events, some of which you cannot follow.
While Judge Leighton was passionate about the law, he was also passionate about the game of chess. Judge Sophia Hall recalled that Leighton was a master at chess. She said all lawyers could benefit from following Judge Leighton’s passion for chess because “it teaches strategy and the ability to think two or three moves ahead.” Necessary skills for a trial lawyer or for a judge.
As an attorney, Judge Leighton was on the cutting edge of several issues. He was active in the NAACP and clients included the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He took on causes like helping the African-American family enforce their lease for an apartment in Cicero. He led a case that enabled prisoners to assert habeas corpus rights in federal court. He represented many on the South side of Chicago in asserting their rights in housing, voting, and jury service.
In 2009, he was the first recipient of The Honorable George N. Leighton Justice Award established by the Illinois Supreme Court’s Historic Preservation Commission. In accepting the award, Judge Leighton referred to the Cicero case.
That indictment was really a favor, it taught me…that innocent people can be charged with crime and even be convicted…. I bear no ill feeling about that, it was a good lesson because the grand jury taught me something that I needed to be taught, it served me when I became a judge. I could listen to a defendant say to me, Judge “I ain’t guilty,” I could see what he meant, because I had gone through the same thing…. [t]hat’s been the experience I’ve had here in Chicago, all because of what the people of Chicago have done for me, not for what I’ve done for them.
George N. Leighton, October 1912 to June 2018. From Cranberry bogs in Massachusetts to attorney on the streets of Chicago and Judge. Always with a smile, dignity, and a passion for the law and doing what is right.