A Model Biography of a Model Jurist

By Ross, William G. | Judicature, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

A Model Biography of a Model Jurist


Ross, William G., Judicature


A model biography of a model jurist Elbert Parr Turtle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution, by Anne Emanuel. The University of Georgia Press. 2011. 399 pages. $34.95. This book is part of the Studies in the Legal History of the South series, edited by Paul Finkelman, Timothy S. Huebner, and the late Kermit L. Hall.

Although U.S. Supreme Court justices tend to receive ample attention from biographers, historians too often neglect the lives of the many lower federal and state judges who have made major contributions to the development of the law and changed the nation's history. No jurist has deserved a first-rate biography more than Elbert Parr Tuttle (1897-1996), who became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the Deep South in 1954 and who served as chief judge from 1960 to 1967, during the most turbulent years of the civil rights movement. Anne Emanuel has rectified this omission by writing a splendid biography that is worthy of its doughty subject. Emanuel, a professor of law at Georgia State University who served as one of Tuttle's law clerks during 1975-76, explains how Tuttle's courageous devotion to rule of law played a decisive role in ensuring the success of the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

As Emanuel explains, the Fifth Circuit under Tuttle's leadership took "the lead not simply in effectuating the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education but in giving vibrant life to the equal protection clause of the Constitution and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964." She concludes that Tuttle, as "much as anyone," paved the way for the 1964 legislation and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which "transformed American life," even though these statutes "did not, and could not, solve all the inequities that flowed from.. .slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow segregation." As Emanuel points out more than once, however, Tuttle liked to emphasize that the principal heroes of the civil rights movement were the African-American plaintiffs and attorneys whose lawsuits exposed them to more perils than federal judges faced.

Ascending the bench only months after Brown, Tuttle did not foresee the intensity of resistance to the Court's desegregation decision. In the face of massive political opposition in the South and passivity at the White House, however, Tuttle quickly came to understand "that in many cases nothing would change unless the federal courts made it change." Emanuel explains how Tuttle at many critical junctures decisively exercised his judicial authority to ensure that African Americans received their constitutional rights. In her meticulous exploration of legally and factually complex cases, Emanuel demonstrates how judges tend to influence legal development in increments, often through the nuances of procedure, rather than through magisterial decisions or eloquent opinions. She also shows how judges can allow their own moral principles to guide their decisions within the confines of precedent. As Tuttle explained, "my judicial philosophy is based pretty much on my own moral precepts..., except that I am bound by precedent. But where there's no precedent that says I can't give relief and it appears that an injustice has been done, I'll try every way I can to correct that injustice."

Although many of Tuttle's rulings involved technical procedures rather than substantive issues, these rulings often emboldened federal trial judges, civil rights leaders, and elected officials. In the case challenging segregation of the University of Georgia, for example, Tuttle lifted a stay of the lower court's desegregation order that the court had issued when the state appealed the order. As Emanuel explains, Tuttle's action disarmed the state "of its most potent weapon; delay." Tuttle's support for the lower court's desegregation order also encouraged the trial judge, William A. Bootle, to issue a restraining order to prevent the governor from cutting off funds to the university, a ruling that kept the university open and helped to defuse growing political tension. …

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