Long known as 26th and Cal, the criminal courts building on Chicago’s Southwest Side was officially renamed “The Honorable George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building” Thursday.
Cook County Commissioners voted unanimously to rename the building after the 99-year-old legendary jurist, who served as Cook County Circuit Court judge, the first African American to sit on the Illinois Appellate Court and, later, 20-plus years as a federal judge. Leighton wasn’t at the meeting, but his daughter, son-in-law and grandson were in attendance.
“This is a great day for Cook County. This is a remarkable renaissance man,” said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a North suburban Democrat. “He faced all the discrimination you can imagine existed in the early part of life” — and “overcame” it.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who called Leighton’s life story “astonishing,” championed the measure to name the criminal courts building, where Leighton once served as a judge, after him.
Preckwinkle said the law enforcement leaders, including Sheriff Tom Dart, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Public Defender Abishi Cunningham all gave their blessing to the proposal.
She credited her former colleague on the Chicago City Council, Ald. Ed. Burke (14th) — the powerful chairman of the Council Finance Committee — with coming up with the idea.
“That’s where I started my judicial career,” Leighton told the Sun-Times by phone last month from his Massachusetts home, explaining that those first years out of law school he was representing clients — often without pay.
Raised on the East Coast, Leighton said he chose to move to Chicago to start his legal career, catching a break in the late 1940s with a two-man law office in the shadows of the old Comiskey Park on the city’s South Side.
“I did a lot of volunteering, and I did have my share of death penalty cases — in those days it was a lot quicker from [trial] to sentencing,” he said of his 18-year tenure as a defense attorney.
His rise through the judicial ranks — with plenty of accolades along the way — has left him firmly grounded.
“I question whether I deserve all of this,” Leighton said, marveling at how the honor brings his career full circle. “To have my name at 26th and California on the building where I began practicing law without being paid a fee. You know, there’s a whole lot to it. When you’re 99 years old, you start thinking about things that never occurred to you.”
One of his star law school students, Tim Evans, now chief judge of the Cook County circuit court system, said it’s a well-deserved honor that should be given while Leighton is still alive.
“Judge Leighton has been a lawyer for 64, 65 years. He is an icon in the justice and civil rights community,” Evans said, noting that Leighton often traveled to Mississippi to represent civil rights leaders in legal cases. “I’m not at all surprised he would be recognized in that way.”
Evans said he has long considered Leighton, one of his instructors at the John Marshall Law School, a mentor and called him “my star in the judicial constellation.”
Leighton’s is an improbable story. He grew up near New Bedford, Mass., picking cranberries and blueberries with his parents, immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands off Africa’s coast. He didn’t learn much English early on, never finished school and never went to high school. Instead, he got a job in a ship’s kitchen until he was thrown off in a mutiny. He talked his way into Howard University.
He did so well at Howard that he was able to talk his way into Harvard Law School, again on a scholarship, working odd jobs to support himself.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Leighton took a break from Harvard to spend four years as a second lieutenant in places such as Guadalcanal.
His Harvard law degree did not open any law firm doors in a segregated Chicago in 1946, but Leighton made a name for himself defending those who couldn’t pay, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with cases.
In 1951, Leighton was indicted for provoking a race riot in Cicero because he had told his clients, an African-American family, that it was OK to move there. He was cleared.
“I received a phone call, unsolicited, from Mayor Richard J. Daley asking me to be a candidate for judge,” Leighton told the Sun-Times in 2009. In those days, the election was a formality. Leighton knew as soon as he got the telephone call that he was in. He was elevated to the state appellate court, becoming the first African American on that panel.
Then, Republican Sen. Charles Percy called. “Even though I was a Democratic Party liberal, he said President Gerald Ford wanted to nominate me to the federal bench,” Leighton said.
He “retired” 20-plus years ago but his profile remains on the website of Neal & Leroy, the firm started by his old friend Earl Neal and his son Langdon Neal.