George N. Leighton
Attorney, Retired Judge,
Civil Rights Advocate and Legal Legend
Born George Neves Leitao in 1912 to immigrant parents from the Cape Verde Island, he was renamed George Leighton by an elementary school teacher unable to pronounce his surname. When he reached the seventh grade, Leighton left school to work on an oil tanker.
In 1936, Leighton continued to educate himself by winning a college scholarship and entering Howard University. By the end of his first term, he was on the Dean’s List and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1940. Setting his sights on pursuing a legal career, Leighton tried to get into Harvard Law School and was given a full scholarship. His studies, however, were interrupted by Army service during WWII. He returned to Harvard, where he excelled and graduated in 1946.
Leighton then moved to Chicago, where he became President and General Counsel of the Chicago NAACP. Thereafter, he went into private practice, and subsequently served as a highly respected Circuit Court Judge, Appellate Court Justice, and a Federal District Court Judge, having been appointed to the federal bench by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975. In 1987, after twenty-three combined years as a judge on the state and federal benches, Leighton, still fondly referred to as “the judge”, became of counsel to Neal & Leroy, LLC practicing in the areas of litigation and appellate cases. Leighton retired from Neal & Leroy, LLC in October 2011 at the age of ninety-nine years old.
Leighton also has been a member of the adjunct faculty at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago for thirty-nine years. During his tenure, Leighton worked tirelessly with John Marshall to keep evening law school programs accredited for students who work during the day and take classes at night.
In his role as judge and legal advocate, Leighton has had a significant influence in shaping our laws and society. For example, attracting national attention as counsel for ten African-American citizens from Mobile, Alabama in the 1946 Boswell Amendment Case, Leighton succeeded in obtaining a judgment declaring the amendment unconstitutional. The Boswell Amendment was the reaction of Alabama white supremacists to a new civil rights era that was taking place during and after World War II. This amendment was designed as a device for eliminating African-Americans’ right to vote. It required a prospective voter to “understand and explain” any section of the United States Constitution. Amendment supporters believed Boswell to be the only means short of intimidation and violence by which the white supremacists of Alabama could preserve their long-held political and social supremacy. In 1949, in Davis v. Schnell, the court overturned the Boswell law, affirming that it violated the right of African-Americans to vote that was secured in the fifteenth amendment to the United States Constitution.
Also, in 1951, Leighton filed suit for a temporary restraining order on behalf of an African-American family who had been blocked by angry neighbors from moving into an apartment they had rented in an all-white Cicero neighborhood. Leighton was indicted by a Cook County grand jury for conspiracy to incite a riot and lower property values. Thurgood Marshall, the future United States Supreme Court justice, represented Leighton, and the indictment was dismissed. In addition, in 1961, Leighton attracted nationwide attention when he represented a well known alleged underworld figure in Sam Giancana v. Marlin W. Johnson, United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois. This case resulted in a rarely granted injunction restraining the FBI from alleged invasions of the plaintiff’s civil liberties.
As a compassionate champion of human rights, Mr. Leighton has achieved numerous awards recognizing his outstanding service and contributions to the legal community. Some recent highlights include:
April 22, 2013
George N. Leighton Highlighted in Phi Beta Kappa’s The Key Reporter, Spring 2013
George N. Leighton, retired Judge and of counsel at Neal & Leroy, LLC, was highlighted in Phi Beta Kappa’s The Key Reporter, Member Spotlight, Spring 2013. In 1940, Leighton became a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and most widely known academic honor society, while attending Howard University, Washington D.C. Click here to view the Member Spotlight.
November 30, 2011
Honorable Judge George Leighton Recipient of the 2011 Unity Award
Apriil 28, 2011
George Leighton to Receive Cardinal Bernardin Award
October 8, 2010
George Leighton Cited in an Chicago Daily Law Bulletin Article
July 6, 2010
Chicago Lawyer Profiles George N. Leighton
December 10, 2009
Illinois State Bar Association’s First Diversity Leadership Award
October 14, 2009
Chicago Inn of Court’s Don Hubert Public Service Award
October 15, 2009
Mass Torts Made Perfect’s Clarence Darrow Award
May 13, 2009
The Harold Washington History Maker Award
February 20, 2009
Southern Trial Lawyers Association War Horse Award
November 13, 2008
2008 Jenner & Block Award
August 8, 2008
Judge at the ABA White-Thaw Mock Trial
August 10, 2005
2005 American Bar Association Medal