Obituaries

Judge George N. Leighton, pioneering black lawyer and jurist, dies at 105

George Leighton, a New Bedford native who retired from the bench at 74 and then worked at a Chicago law firm until he was 99, had personal experience as the target of injustice.
Frank Berger/Chicago Tribune/file 1959
George Leighton, a New Bedford native who retired from the bench at 74 and then worked at a Chicago law firm until he was 99, had personal experience as the target of injustice.

George Leighton was in the seventh grade in New Bedford when his mother called the principal to send him home. She had found him a job on an oil tanker bound for the West Indies.

At 17, he was years older than his classmates, having only attended school a few months each year when he wasn’t in the bogs picking cranberries to help support his family. Paying heed to his mother, he stood and left the classroom.

“And that was the last time I had set foot in a public school,” he later recalled for a TV documentary, adding: “I never lost my determination to become educated.”

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A son of Cape Verdean immigrants, he read books to keep educating himself, talked his way into college, graduated from Harvard Law School in his 30s, and became a prominent lawyer and judge in Chicago.

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Judge Leighton, who retired from the bench at 74 and then worked at a Chicago law firm until he was 99, died of pneumonia Wednesday in the VA Medical Center in Brockton. He was 105 and in recent years had divided his time between a house in Plymouth and a condo in downtown Chicago.

“He was very proud of owning that condo because when he initially came to Chicago, a black person couldn’t have an office or even hail a cab downtown,” said his daughter Barbara L. Whitfield of Chicago.

During a career that traversed the civil rights era, he inspired generations of young lawyers and politicians, including president Barack Obama. Judge Leighton was the first black judge appointed to the Illinois Appellate Court, and President Gerald Ford subsequently appointed him to serve as a US District Court judge.

Long before spending more than a decade on the federal bench, Judge Leighton got his start as a defense attorney representing many clients, often minorities, who had been unjustly accused and jailed.

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“I can’t think of a greater cruelty to impose on a human being than to be put in a prison, no matter how small or large, for a crime you didn’t commit and a crime your imprisoners know you didn’t commit,” Judge Leighton told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in 2012, the year he turned 100.

Judge Leighton had personal experience as the target of injustice. As a lawyer in the early 1950s, while an NAACP leader, he represented an African-American family that was attempting to move into an apartment in an all-white neighborhood in the Chicago suburb of Cicero.

Area residents tried to keep out the family, and in the face of protests, Judge Leighton secured a court injunction that allowed the family to take up residence. A riot ensued and the apartment building was set afire. A grand jury then indicted Judge Leighton on conspiracy to incite the riot, but the charges were dropped when he was represented by his friend Thurgood Marshall, a future US Supreme Court justice.

“With grace, integrity, humility, perseverance, and extraordinary talent, George Leighton has defined for generations of men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds what it really means to be a lawyer,” Chicago lawyer Jeffrey Colman told James Warren for a 2010 New York Times feature on Judge Leighton.

The judge whose life and career would prove so inspirational was born in New Bedford in 1912 with the name George Neves Leitao. His parents, Antonio Neves Leitao and the former Ana Garcia, were immigrants from Brava, in the Cape Verde islands off the West Coast of Africa.

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One of seven children, Judge Leighton had a twin sister, Georgiana. He already was working in the cranberry bogs from March until late fall each year when a substitute fourth-grade teacher decided his last name was too difficult to pronounce and decided to rename him “Leighton.”

‘As a lawyer, you have been a steadfast advocate of justice for all.’

“I took the name,” he said in a 2012 documentary for the New Bedford Cable Network, and added that “it has helped me, because it makes it easy for me to become amalgamated into American society.”

While working on the ship several years later, he read voraciously and won an essay contest for a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. By then he was 24, and the college initially didn’t want to accept him; he hadn’t finished middle school, much less graduated from high school. But he persuaded the university’s president to admit him as an “unclassified student.”

Judge Leighton graduated magna cum laude in 1940 and, in the documentary, said he decided he “could enter any law school in America.” Choosing Harvard Law School, he once again persuaded administrators to admit him, and attended as a scholarship student.

“He said he didn’t know where the idea came from to be an attorney,” his daughter Barbara said. “He just knew there was something better than picking cranberries.”

World War II interrupted Judge Leighton’s law school studies. Before leaving to serve in the Army, he married Virginia Berry Quivers. Stationed with the infantry in the Pacific Theater, he was discharged as a captain and returned to Harvard. He graduated and passed the bar in 1946, the year he turned 34.

Moving to Chicago, he handled fair housing, voting rights, and school desegregation cases early in his career. Judge Leighton counted among his friends Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, who backed him when he was elected in 1964 to be a Circuit Court judge.

As a lawyer, Judge Leighton also famously represented mobster Sam Giancana, and got a judge to limit the FBI’s surveillance on his client.

A thin gold watch that Giancana gave him became one of the mementos Judge Leighton kept handy as a reminder of his full and very long life. Among his other keepsakes, the Chicago Tribune noted when he turned 104, were a Bible that was worn from reading and re-reading, and a chessboard. Judge Leighton took up chess as a boy and had been featured in chess publications and columns, including in the Globe.

“One thing about getting old that I find very enjoyable is to think back on times when you were up against it,” Judge Leighton told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin upon turning 100 in 2012.

His wife, Virginia, died in 1992, just before their 50th anniversary. A service will be announced for Judge Leighton, who in addition to his daughter Barbara leaves another daughter, Virginia Anne Reynolds of Ohio; five grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren

In 2012, Cook County, Ill., renamed its main criminal courthouse the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building. Several years earlier, the New Bedford Post Office became the George N. Leighton Post Office Building. And fittingly, New Bedford’s Roosevelt Middle School named a courtyard in his honor, some 75 years after he left seventh grade for the last time.

“As a lawyer, you have been a steadfast advocate of justice for all,” Obama, then a US senator from Illinois, wrote to Judge Leighton in June 2008, when Harvard Law School established a fund in the judge’s name.

“The Rev. Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ ” Obama wrote. “Reverend King was right, but it does not bend on its own. It takes people like George Leighton to bend it. I thank you for doing just that.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.