Former Neal & Leroy partner, Judge George N. Leighton, a longtime state and federal judge who was the first African-American to set on the Illinois Appellate Court and the namesake of the Cook County criminal courthouse, died Wednesday, June 6, 2018 at the age of 105.
Remembering Judge Leighton, managing partner Langdon Neal said, “He will go down as one of this nation’s greatest civil rights lawyers. Not just in [the] advancement of racial equality, but [for his work] fighting for everyone to ensure the Constitution protect[s] all individuals.”
Judge Leighton grew up near New Bedford, Massachusetts. The son of Cape Verdean immigrants, he left school in the seventh grade after his mother found him a job on an oil tanker bound for the West Indies.
Though helping support his family meant he was unable to finish grade school or attend high school, Judge Leighton never lost his determination to become educated. He read voraciously and won an essay contest for a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. The college initially didn’t want to accept him—he hadn’t finished middle school, much less graduated from high school—he persuaded the university’s president to admit him as an “unclassified student.” In 1940, Judge Leighton graduated magna cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
He went on to enroll, on scholarship, at Harvard Law School.
When the Japanese bombed Peral Harbor, Judge Leighton took leave from his legal studies at Harvard to join the U.S. Army. He served as a captain in a segregated unit in the Pacific campaign as a logistics officer. In 1946, he was honorably discharged and awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Distinguished Service Wreath, and the Combat Infantry Badge.
Upon separating from the Army, Judge Leighton continued to serve the nation in his civilian life—returning to Harvard to complete his law degree and moving to Chicago where he got his start as a defense attorney representing many clients, often minorities, who had been unjustly accused and jailed. Along with his criminal defense work, he also handled fair housing, voting rights, and school desegregation cases.
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 U.S. Supreme Court justice.
In 1964, Judge Leighton continued his public service on the bench, serving first as a Circuit Court Judge in Cook County and then, in 1969, becoming the first African American Appellate Court Judge in Illinois. In recognition of his contribution to the Civil Rights movement and his use of the law to bring about change peacefully, he was then appointed to serve on the bench of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975. He continued to serve honorably in that capacity until 1987.
Upon his retirement from the bench, Judge Leighton joined Neal & Leroy, where he worked until he was 99.
Throughout his career, Judge Leighton served as a role model and mentor for many in Chicago’s legal community, as well as a leader in the Chicago chapter of the NAACP. In 2008, when Harvard Law School established a fund in Judge Leighton’s name, then Senator Barack Obama wrote, “The Rev. Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Reverend King was right, but it does not bend on its own. It takes people like George Leighton to bend it.”
In Neal’s words, “Practicing law was not only what he did for a living, but it was who he was as a person.”
It is this commitment to justice for which the Judge is now remembered.
Leighton is survived by two adult daughters, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.