Wright, J. Skelly (1911–1988)

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WRIGHT, J. SKELLY (1911–1988)

J. Skelly Wright was serving as the U.S. attorney for New Orleans when he was appointed to the Federal District Court bench by President harry s. truman in 1948. At the time of his appointment, Wright, at thirty-seven, was the youngest judge on the federal bench. From 1956 to 1962, he presided over the desegregation of the New Orleans school district, becoming in the process "the most hated man in New Orleans." Displaying real boldness, he ruled unconstitutional various state statutes adopted with the apparent goal of thwarting desegregation. In 1962, President john f. kennedy wanted to appoint Wright to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose jurisdiction then covered much of the South). This appointment, however, was blocked by Senator Russell Long, for reasons of Louisiana politics. Instead, the President ended up appointing Wright to the District of Columbia Circuit. Wright sat on this court for twenty-five years, eventually becoming its Chief Judge.

On the D.C. Circuit, Wright proved to be a liberal activist; indeed, his career is one of the purest examples of this genre of judging. A genuinely humble man, he was distinctly gratified by a judicial position that enabled him, in his words, to "make a contribution." He was the author of a large number of noteworthy opinions, dealing with such issues as the unconscionability defense in contract law, the implied warranty of habitability in residential leases, the broad rule-making powers of the Federal Trade Commission, the impermissibility of ex parte contracts in the course of informal rule making, and the proper scope of the National Environmental Protection Act. Designated in one instance to sit as a district court judge, Wright issued an opinion that required the D.C. school system to equalize spending between schools that were de facto white and those that were black, to cure problems of teacher segregation, and to end a rigid system of student ability grouping. In its time, the Wright opinion was a leader in the development of what was then called the "new equal protection."

Judge Wright's interests in public law were also reflected in his authorship of a significant number of major law review articles, including one advocating the revival of the antidelegation doctrine. In his articles and his opinions as well, Wright was a remarkable stylist, writing with a directness and sense of purpose that gave his work a distinctive voice.

Having retired from the court a year before, Wright died in 1988.

Gary T. Schwartz


Miller, Arthur Selwyne 1984 A "Capacity for Outrage": The Judicial Odyssey of J. Skelly Wright. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Symposium 1980 Judge J. Skelly Wright. Hastings Constitutional Quarterly :857–999.

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Wright, J. Skelly (1911–1988)

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