Pioneering Chicago Judge George Leighton died Wednesday at age 105, the owner of his longtime law firm said.
Leighton, who retired from the federal bench in 1987 when he was 74, had been hospitalized for pneumonia at a Brockton, Mass., veterans hospital, said Langdon Neal, managing member of Neal & Leroy, where Leighton worked until he was 99.
“The law was not only a profession for him, it described him as a person,” Neal said. “He lived the law 24/7.”
The first black judge appointed to the Illinois Appellate Court, Leighton established a reputation throughout his decadeslong legal career as a civil rights champion, first as a criminal defense attorney in the 1940s and ’50s, then as a judge in the 1960s.
He also served on the federal bench as a U.S. District Court judge for more than 10 years. Cook County’s main criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue — where Leighton began his judicial career — was named in his honor in 2012.
“Judge Leighton came to Chicago in 1946 at a time when an African-American man could neither rent an office downtown nor hail a taxi in the Loop,” Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in a statement Wednesday night. “He made a name for himself as an attorney who fought for voting rights, integrated schools, fair housing and equal access to jury service.”
The son of parents who immigrated to New Bedford, Mass., from the Cape Verde islands, Leighton spent part of his youth working in cranberry bogs. It was while laboring there, he later said, that the dream of a legal career first came to him, according to a 2016 Tribune report.
But his work kept him from school, and at 17 he was still in the seventh grade. That year, he left to work on an oil tanker sailing to the Dutch West Indies.
Ultimately — and without ever graduating from high school — Leighton entered an essay in a scholarship competition for admission to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was among the winners.
“He was a brilliant writer,” Neal said.
Winning entries earned a scholarship, but when university officials learned he had not finished middle school or high school, they were reluctant to admit him, Neal said. However, Leighton met with Howard’s president and persuaded him to admit him on a probationary basis in 1936, at age 24.
Leighton went on to graduate with a history degree and was later accepted to Harvard Law School on scholarship.
In 1942 — before he could graduate — Leighton was called into service during World War II and served as a second lieutenant in the 93rd Infantry Division, which was segregated. He was discharged in 1945 with the rank of captain.
By 34, Leighton had finished law school and passed the bar.
Leighton, known to friends as an accomplished chess player, had a notable career. In 1965, public fury over his acquittal of two Latino men accused of beating and slashing a Chicago police officer threatened to end in his removal from the bench, where he’d been for only a year. Still, he refused to back down from his finding that white police officers had lied about the event.
His tenacity earned him many fans in the legal community in Chicago and elsewhere, Neal said.
In a Wednesday night tweet, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx offered her condolences to Leighton’s family.
“I’m deeply saddened to learn of Judge George Leighton’s passing. I’m thinking first of his family – but also of his extraordinary legacy as both an advocate and an example for black Chicagoans. He will be missed by many.”
That legacy is an enduring gift to the public, Neal added.
“If only all those men and women who walked through the doors of the Leighton courthouse knew his story,” Neal said. “It really is an American hero’s story.”