A Biographical Sketch of George N. Leighton

  • Judge, Circuit Court of Cook County

    December 7, 1964-September 1, 1969

  • Justice, Illinois Appellate Court

  • September 1, 1969-February 27, 1976

  • Judge, United States District Court
  • February 27, 1976

I. Biographical History and Education

George N. Leighton was born on October 22, 1912 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The vital statistics of that city show his name as George Neves Leitao because he was the son of Anna Silva Garcia and Antonio Neves Leitao, natives of the African-coastal Cape Verde Islands, a 14-island archipelago that was Portuguese territory for more than 400 years. He was reared in New Bedford and on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He attended grade schools on Cape Cod and in New Bedford. He finished the sixth grade; but because he had to work early in life, he never entered high school. In the year that he began the seventh grade in public school, he took a job on an oil tanker sailing from Fall River, Massachusetts to Aruba in the Dutch West Indies. This ended his public school education. Between that time and September of 1936, Leighton read extensively from books, borrowed from various sources. In 1934, he attended night schools; and at one time he studied in the 1934-35 WPA classes.

In the winter of 1935, as a memorial to the sinking of the USS Nantucket by the SS Olympic, the Cape Verdeans of New Bedford, Massachusetts, under the leadership of Alfred J. Gomes, a lawyer, created the Cape Verdean Memorial Scholarship Fund. In the early winter of 1936, the first essay contest was held and two prizes were awarded for the best essays submitted. The two prizes, each for $200.00 were to provide initial tuition for the winners in any college of their choice. George N. Leighton won one of the awards.

Early in the winter of 1936, he submitted an application for admission to Howard University; and although his application for a scholarship was rejected, he received a letter from Mr. F. D. Wilkinson, then Registrar of Howard University, informing him that he could attend Howard University as an Unclassified Student. As a postscript to the letter, Mr. Wilkinson stated that if Leighton proved he could do college work without having attended a high school, Howard would make him a candidate for a degree.

In September of 1936, assisted by the essay scholarship award of $200.00 which had been remitted in part to Howard University to pay for the first semester's tuition, and on the authority of the letter written by Mr. Wilkinson, Leighton began his studies at Howard University.

At the end of the first semester examinations, because of excellent scholarship, Leighton made the Dean's Honor Roll. He remained on that roll through four years of college studies. On making the roll, Leighton approached Mr. Wilkinson and reminded him of the postscript to his 1936 letter. As a consequence of the grades earned, he was made a candidate for a degree in the College of Liberal Arts. He was graduated in 1940, magna cum laude.

Early in 1940, Leighton wrote to James McCauley Landis, then Dean of the Harvard Law School. Because of his scholastic record at Howard University, Dean Landis awarded Leighton a first year scholarship to Harvard Law School. He enrolled in September 1940;

but in March of 1942, his law studies were interrupted by World War II. On March 10, 1942, he was ordered to active duty and reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he attended the 206th Basic Class for Reserve Officers. On June 18, 1942, he was ordered to report to the 93rd Infantry Division at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He remained with the 93rd Division throughout its service in the Pacific Theatre. In October of 1945, Leighton was relieved from active duty as a Captain in the Infantry. He returned to Harvard Law School on October 24, 1945 and was awarded his LLB degree on November 25, 1946.

II. Professional and Civic Experience

Before completion of his studies at Harvard Law School, Leighton took examinations for the Massachusetts Bar, passed and became a Massachusetts lawyer on October 3, 1946. On October 14, 1946, he arrived in Chicago and was admitted to the Bar of the State of Illinois on January 20, 1947.

From October, 1946 to December 8,1964, he was active in civic affairs of Chicago. During 1947-48, he was president of the Chicago Chapter of the Howard University Alumni Association. From 1947-1953, he was a member and the Chairman of the Legal Redress Committee of the Chicago Branch, NAACP. During his chairmanship of the Committee, Leighton was general counsel in the Cicero Riot Case in which he represented Harvey dark and his family.

Between 1952-53, for two terms, he was President of the Chicago Branch, NAACP; and during the last year of his presidency, he was General Counsel in the Trumbull Park Case representing the Donald Howard family. During the period 1962 to 1964, Leighton again became active in the Chicago Branch, NAACP and served as Chairman of its Political Action Committee and the Legal Redress Committee. In 1964 he became a Life Member in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In addition to these civic activities, Leighton has been:

(a) member of the Advisory Committee of the Illinois Division, American Civil Liberties Union; (b) member of the Advisory Committee, Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI); (c) Chairman of the Legislative Committee, Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce; (d) member of the Drafting Sub-Committee of the Citizens Committee for the Adoption of the Fair Employment Practice Act;(e) member of the Committee for the Adoption of an Open Occupancy Statute; (f) member of the Mayor's Citizens Committee on City Revenue and Expenditures (1963); and (g) from December 1961 to April 1970, Leighton was a member of the Public Review Board, UAW.

Presently he is (1) member of the Board of Directors, Grant Hospital, Chicago, Illinois; (2) National Member of the Harvard Law School Association; (3) member of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Tuberculosis Institute; (4) member of the Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity.

In 1951, together with the late Loring B. Moore, Leighton organized the law firm, Moore, Ming & Leighton, predecessor to the law firms of McCoy, Ming & Leighton (1959-1964) and McCoy, Ming and Black, 123 West Madison Street. Among the partners in the firm were Fleetwood M. McCoy, William R. Ming, Jr., Walter K. Black and Chauncey Eskridge. From 1953 until 1971, the law office occupied the third floor of the Joel Hunter Building, Chicago, Illinois, and was considered by the profession to be one of the largest predominantly Black law firms in the United States. Leighton withdrew from the firm in November 1964 when he was elected a judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

During his law practice, Leighton was active in cases that attracted national attention. The first and perhaps the most important of these was the Boswell Amendment Case in which as counsel for ten Negro citizens of Mobile, Alabama, he succeeded in obtaining a judgment declaring the amendment unconstitutional. The opinion of the three judge federal court is reported in Dams v. Schnell, 51 F. Supp. 872, and was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States, sub nom. Schnell v. Davis, 336 U.S. 933, 69 S. Ct. 749.

In 1950, Leighton represented Negro parents of school children in Harrisburg, Illinois in a proceeding which he filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. An injunction was obtained ordering desegregation of the public schools of Harrisburg, Illinois.

In the years before 1964, Leighton's important cases involved convictions of men whose constitutional rights were infringed in the trial court proceedings. The most famous of these was that of Earl Howard Pugh who spent seventeen years of penitentiary imprisonment before he was discharged in a proceeding instituted in the Criminal Court of Cook County. In 1953, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill which authorized the payment of $51,000.00 to Pugh. The story of the case was published in Ebony Magazine, October, 1955. Other cases of constitutional importance were Napue v. Illinois, 358 U.S. 919; Ciucci v. Illinois, 353 U.S. 982; Townsend v. Sam, 372 U.S. 293, See 334 F.2d 838; Goldsby v. Harpole, 263 F.2d 71; Lloyd Eldon Miller, Jr. v. Pate, 226 F. Supp. 541; See 87 S. Ct. 785.

During his professional career, Leighton represented plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases of every kind. He defended more than 200 criminal charges in bench and jury trials. During this same period he handled more than 175 appeals or reviews, civil and criminal, in state and federal courts.

In addition to these cases, Leighton attracted professional attention of the Bench and Bar in his handling of the habeas corpus proceedings of Lloyd Eldon Miller, Jr. v. Pate, a case in which a death sentence imposed in Hancock County, Illinois in 1956 was set aside by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Lloyd Miller was released from incarceration after the decision of the United States Supreme Court reported in 87 S. Ct. 785.

In July, 1963, 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation from alleged invasions of the plaintiff's civil liberties. One unexpected consequence was the imposition of a fine on an Agent-in-Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a fine later upheld in the United States Court of Appeals and reported in Giancana v. Johnson, 335 F.2d 372 (7th Cir. 1964).

III. Bar Association Activities

During his years at the Bar, Leighton has been a member of the American Bar Association, the Inter-American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, the Cook County Bar Association, the National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases, and the Chicago Bar Association.

He is a member of several committees of the American Bar Association: Rights and Responsibilities, Judicial Administration, Legal Education. In 1963-64, Leighton served as the Chairman of the Bill of Rights Committee of the Illinois State Bar Association.

He served on committees of the Cook County Bar Association. He has been active in the National Bar Association and has been a member of several of its panels at its national conventions in various parts of the United States.

In the Chicago Bar Association, Leighton was the first member of his race to be elected to its Board of Managers. After serving two years, he was honored with election as Librarian, a position to which he was reelected for two consecutive terms following his original term in that office.

Until November 1963, Leighton served as a Commissioner of the Supreme Court of Illinois on the Committee on Character and Fitness for the First Appellate District of the State of Illinois. In 1961 he served as Chairman of the Committee. As a Commissioner he sat by authority of the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois to hear and pass upon character qualifications of applicants to the Illinois Bar. As a member of the Board of Managers of the Chicago Bar Association, Leighton served as a Commissioner of the Supreme Court of Illinois and a member of the Chicago Bar Association Grievance Committee on which Committee he sat by the authority of the Supreme Court of Illinois hearing cases involving complaints against members of the Bar.

Between 1958 and 1963, Leighton was one of 50 lawyers and judges of the Joint Illinois and Chicago Bar Association Committee for adoption of the Amended Judicial Article. During that same period he was a member of the Joint Chicago Bar and Illinois State Bar Association Committee to revise the Criminal Code. He was member of the Drafting Sub-Committee that prepared the Substantive provisions of the 1961 Criminal Code. He also was a member of the Drafting Subcommittee that prepared the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963, being responsible for the appellate sections of the Code which is now the law of Illinois.

Judge Leighton is presently a member of the Legal Education Committee of the Chicago Bar Association; and for several years, he was a member of its important Judicial Candidates Committee.

From August 1970 to August 1978, he served in the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association. He was member of the Council, Member of its Accreditation Committee, Vice Chairman, Chairman-Elect, Chairman and Immediate Past Chairman. The Council is the accreditation arm of the American Bar Association for all accredited law schools in this country.

In addition to his activities in the respective bar associations of which Leighton has been a member, he has written and had published articles on legal subjects:

"In Rem Powers of Courts of Equity," 5 National Bar Jour. 1 (March, 1947); "Post-Trial Procedures in an Illinois Criminal Case." 47 111. Bar Jour. 253 (1958); "Post-Conviction Remedies in Illinois Criminal Law," Illinois Law Forum (1967); "Federal Supremacy and Federal Habeas Corpus," St. Louis Univ. Law Journal (May, 1967); "Pragmatics of Procedure in Illinois Criminal Appeals," 1 John Marshall J. of P. and P. 167 (1968); "Elements of Equitable Relief." 2 John Marshall J. of P. and P. 230 (1969).

IV. Political Activities

George N. Leighton has always been a Democrat.

From 1947 to 1952, he served under the late Christopher C. Wimbish as President of the 3rd Ward Regular Democratic Organization. As President of the 3rd Ward, Leighton was active in one of the most influential and powerful ward organizations of the Democratic Party.

From 1947 to 1964, Leighton served on citizens committees for the election of Mayor Richard J. Daley and for the election of every important Democratic candidate in Cook County and the State of Illinois. Leighton was active in the campaign to elect John F. Kennedy as President of the United States.

In 1957, Leighton moved to 8400 South Prairie Avenue. It was then part of the 19th Ward under Ward Committeeman John Duffy. He became active in the 19th Ward Regular Democratic Organization; and when the present 21st Ward was created by re-districting, took an active part in the organization of the Democratic Party in the 21st Ward. Leighton was campaign manager for Melvin McNairy, candidate for Alderman for the 21st Ward in the 1963 campaign. He was active in the present organization of the 21st Ward under the leadership of Ward Committeeman Joseph J. Robichaux as Vice-President of the 21st Ward Regular Democratic Organization. Because of his position as a member of the Illinois Judiciary, Judge Leighton has withdrawn from active membership in political organizations.

V. Positions, Elected or Appointed

George N. Leighton served as an Assistant Attorney General of the State of Illinois, 1949-1951. From 1960 to 1964, he was a Master in Chancery of the Circuit Court of Cook County. He has been, by appointment, a member of the Public Review Board, UAW, AFL-CIO on which he sat with six other members as final Arbitrators of internal controversies in one of the largest unions in the world. In November 1964, Leighton was elected to a six-year term as Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. In July, 1969 the Supreme Court of Illinois assigned Judge Leighton to sit as an Appellate Court Judge of the Appellate Court of Illinois, First District.

On February 12, 1965, Judge Leighton was appointed an Instructor in Criminal Law and Procedure at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. Since then, Judge Leighton has played a part in the preparation of more than 800 students for the practice of law. In 1966, he originated a seminar in criminal appeals in which he taught third-year students the techniques in the handling of criminal cases on review.

In February 1969, Judge Leighton was elected to a four-year term as a member of the Council of the National Harvard Law School Associations.

At its 1970 meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association elected Judge Leighton to a four-year term as a member of the Council of the Section. This is the official accrediting agency for law schools in the United States. The task of this Council is to inspect American Law Schools and superintend the Standards of Legal Education in the United States.

VI. Judicial Career

Judge Leighton was elected to the Circuit Court of Cook County on November 4, 1964. He was installed in office on December 7, 1964. From December 8, 1964 to December 1, 1965, he served in the Criminal Division. On December 1, 1965, Judge Leighton was assigned to the Law Jury Division in which he served until September 7, 1967. He then was assigned to the Chancery Division as one of seven Chancellors of the Circuit Court. On July 18, 1969, Judge Leighton was assigned by the Supreme Court of Illinois to sit on the Appellate Court, First District, as Appellate Judge. His written opinions are to be found beginning in 256 N.E. 2d 56 and in 119 111. App. 2d 322.

In November 1970, Judge Leighton was elected to a 10 year term as a Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, First District. Then, on December 19, 1975, President Gerald Ford nominated Judge Leighton to serve as a United States District Judge, Northern District of Illinois. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 2, 1976, was inducted into that office on February 27, 1976, and began serving on March 1, 1976.

During the time he has served on the judiciary, Judge Leighton has taken an active interest in post-election programs aimed at education of judges. On a fellowship, he attended the July 1965 session of the Conference of State Trial Judges held in the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado. Throughout his judicial career, Judge Leighton has served in a number of seminars for the continued education of state and federal judges.

VII. Honors and Awards

On May 13, 1961, George N. Leighton was given the Civil Liberties Award of the Illinois Division, American Civil Liberties Union for his services in ". . . repeatedly acting as counsel at great personal sacrifice, for those deprived of due process." As a member of the Joint Illinois State and Chicago Bar Associations Committee to Revise the Criminal Code, Leighton received the 1961 Guy E. Reed Award of the Citizens of Greater Chicago and the 1964 John Howard Award.

On April 7, 1964 the Chicago Junior Association of Commerce and Industry selected Leighton as Chicagoan of the Year in Law and Judiciary ". . .in appreciation of exceptional professional and civic achievements, recognizing their significance to the community, state and nation."

The Cook County Bar Association named him the recipient of its 1964 Richard E. Westbrooks Award "For distinguished achievement and outstanding contribution to the legal profession."

On June 7, 1964 Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Illinois conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws ". . . in recognition of distinguished service to the legal profession, the community and the church."

In May 1968, Judge Leighton, by selection, became a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation from the State of Illinois. This honor is restricted to a selected number of lawyers and judges from each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia.

On April 28, 1972, Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Howard University admitted Judge Leighton to its distinguished membership.

On June 11, 1973, the John Marshall Law School conferred on Judge Leighton an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

On June 15, 1976, Southeastern Massachusetts University conferred on Judge Leighton the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

On June 2, 1978, New England University School of Law conferred on Judge Leighton the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Judge Leighton was born and reared a Catholic. He and his family belong to the Congregation of Saint Clotilde, 84th and Calumet Avenue, Chicago, where he has served on the Parish Council and the Parish School Board. He is married to the former Virginia Berry Quivers of Washington, D.C. They have two daughters:

Mrs. Virginia Anne Reynolds, of Iowa City, Iowa; Mrs. Barbara L. Whitfield of Chicago, Illinois; five grandchildren: Stephen, David, Juliana Belyn; Lucilla Reynolds, John Kenneth Whitfield.


Notre Dame University - Trustee 1979, Trustee Emeritus 1983. Overseer - Harvard College, June 1983-89. Took status as Senior Judge on Feb. 27, 1986;

Overseer, The Rand Corp. 1987. Retired from federal bench Nov. 30, 1987. Of Counsel to the Chicago Law Firm of Earl L. Neal & Associates, Dec. 1, 1987. Named Special Counsel (to Chairman of Hoard, Chicago Transit Authority, Sept. 1988. Recipient of Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree, Loyola University, Chicago, May 1989. August 1994, admitted a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.