Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

John R. Brown (1910-1993): The Judge Who Charted the Course

Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

John R. Brown (1910-1993): The Judge Who Charted the Course

Article excerpt

Few people have the ability and opportunity to influence significantly both their profession and culture. John Robert Brown was such a person. He was an outstanding maritime lawyer, an innovative judicial administrator, and a federal judge who changed the way people thought and lived.

Born in Funk, Nebraska and a graduate of the University of Nebraska, Judge Brown attended law school at the University of Michigan. In 1932, he graduated number one in his class, and his grade point average remains the highest recorded at the law school. Realizing that there were few jobs in the depression-ridden Midwest, he and some recent law school graduates drove to Texas. Judge Brown started his career in Houston when he was hired by Newton Rayzor as a lawyer for Royston & Rayzor. With the exception of a three-year interruption for World War II military service, he remained with the firm until 1955.

Judge Brown entered the Army Air Corps in July 1942 as a second lieutenant. He was transferred to the Transportation Corps of the Army and became responsible for building and maintaining ports, a task in keeping with his maritime background. Serving in the South Pacific for three years, his final post was port commander in the Philippines. He earned a Bronze Star at the conclusion of the war and was promoted to the rank of major.

Returning to Houston, Judge Brown became recognized nationally and internationally for his legal abilities following the explosion of two ships at the Texas City port in April 1947. (1) In 1955, he was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be a circuit judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which at that time included the southern tier of states stretching from Savannah, Georgia to El Paso, Texas. (2)

During his thirty-eight years on the bench, Judge Brown became an influential and distinguished federal judge. His talent for organization and administration in the pre-computer era led to innovative solutions for the rapidly increasing caseload of the court. These solutions were subsequently adopted by the entire federal court system. He created the summary calendar, allowing a case to be decided only on the basis of briefs submitted on behalf of the parties. He urged the adoption of the Fifth Circuit's Local Rule 21, which permits a case to be affirmed without a written opinion.

In addition to his reputation as a judicial administrator, Judge Brown is best known for his steps to further civil rights in the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education. (3) He believed that his most important opinion was his dissent in Gomillion v. Lightfoot. (4) The Supreme Court would later adopt the views expressed in Judge Brown's powerful dissent, which is widely regarded as the foundation for modern voting rights and redistricting laws. (5) Another important Judge Brown dissent occurred in Lincoln Mills v. Textile Workers Union. (6) His position was essentially adopted by the Supreme Court in an opinion that has become the basis for much current labor law. (7)

Judge Brown, joined by Judges John Minor Wisdom, Elbert P. Tuttle, and Richard T. Rives, enforced civil rights for all citizens in a series of decisions in the late 1950s and 1960s. They formed a group that prevailed in the face of turbulence in the American South and threats to their own safety. Their legal decisions struck down barriers of discrimination in voting rights, jury selection, education, and employment. Judge Brown wrote the 1962 Order that James Meredith be enrolled in the all-white University of Mississippi in opposition to Governor Ross Barnett's position. (8) At his death in 1993, the New York Times wrote that Judge Brown "played a major role in desegregation cases that transformed the South...."

From 1967 to 1979, Judge Brown was Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit, the largest court in the English-speaking world at the time. He retired as Chief Judge at the age of 70, as required, but continued as an active and then senior judge until his death. …

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