Tulane Alumni Association




Distinguished Alumnus/a Award 1989


The Honorable John Minor Wisdom

John Minor Wisdom, Judge of the Fifth Circuit for more than 30 years, was born in 1905 in New Orleans. He graduated with a bachelor of arts from Washington & Lee University in 1925, and a bachelor of laws from Tulane in 1929.

During his illustrious judicial career, Judge Wisdom has issued numerous noteworthy opinions. His landmark decisions include four that dramatically altered the law on school segregation - Jefferson County Borad of Education, Singleton I and II, and Meredith v. Fair. A brief list of other significant cases includes:

* the seminal case of Offshore Co. V. Robinson (1959), which established liberal tests for determining what is a "vessel" and who is a "seaman,"

* Labat v. Bennett (1966), which required the Orleans Parish jury system to be drawn from a cross-section of the community,

* Borel v. Fibreboard Products Corp: (1973), cert. denied, the first appellate case to hold the manufacturer of insulation material liable to the worker for failing to warn of dangers associated with asbestos,

* Donaldson v. O'Connor (1975), in which Judge Wisdom ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right to treatment to persons involuntarily civilly committee to a state mental hospital,

* Local 189, United Papermakers and Paperworkers v. United States (1976), for which Judge Wisdom wrote the landmark opinion adopting the "rightful place" theory, which prohibited awarding future jobs based on a seniority system which locked-in race discrimination,

* The high-impact case of Weber v. Kaiser Aluminum (1977), in which the Supreme Court upheld Judge Wisdom's dissenting opinion. The affirmative action agreement was approved, allowing the black employees to enter a training program with less seniority than white competitors.

Judge Wisdom entered private practice in 1929, continuing until 1957 as a partner in Wisdom, Stone, Pigman & Benjamin. During this period, he also held the position of adjunct professor at Tulane Law School (1938-57) and served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army (1942-46), receiving the Legion of Merit and Army Commendation Medal for his service.

From 1952 to 1957, Judge Wisdom served as Republican National Committeeman for Louisiana and as a member of the President's Committee on Government Contracts (1953-57). He was chairman of the American Bar Association's Appellate Judges Conference (1966-67), and his professional associations include membership in the American Judicature Society, the American Law Institute (life member of the council), Louisiana Bar Association, Louisiana Law Institute, and the New Orleans Bar Association. Judge Wisdom was a member of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (1968-75) and served as its chairman (1975-78); other activities include the Judicail Conference, Advisory Committee on Appellate Rules (1973-78), and judgeship of the Special Court under the Regional Railroad Reorganization Act of 1973 (1975-present). He is the author of many articles in the law reviews of Cornell, Notre Dame, the University of Pennyslvania, Loyola, and Tulane, among others.

Judge Wisdom's honors and awards include Order of the Coif, Omicron Delta Kappa, the Doctor of Laws degree from Oberlin, Tulane University, San Diego University, Haverford College, Middlebury College, and Harvard University. He is the recipient of the Tom C. Clark, Equal Justice Under Law Award, Phi Alpha Delta (1982), the First Louisiana Bar Foundation Distinguished Jurist Award (1986), and the Sir Thomas More Medallion, Loyola of Los Angeles (1986). The December 1985 edition of the Tulane Law Review (60 Tul. L. Rev. 231) was dedicated to Judge Wisdom.

Elbert Tuttle, former Cheif Justice of the Fifth Circuit, now Senior Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, wrote in the forward to the Review the following tribute to John Minor Wisdom:

He has lifted the level of the age in which he lives by combining his love of liberty and high morality to advance the human rights to a degree rarely achieved by a single individual. Thanks to him, we all stand on higher ground.

Alumni Relations, Tulane University, 6319 Willow Street, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5901