Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Remembrance: Wesley Brown, the Nation's Oldest Federal Judge

By Joe Palazzolo, WSJ Law Blog

U.S. Senior District Judge Wesley Brown, the nation’s oldest federal judge and one of only two to serve until the age of 104, has died, according to news reports.

Brown handled a full criminal docket at the federal courthouse in Wichita well into his 100s, but he pared his schedule to part-time in the past year, the Wichita Eagle reported.

Brown, the subject of this 2010 story in the New York Times that explored aging and the federal judiciary, was quick to riff on his longevity.

“I always say we’re appointed for life or good behavior, whichever ends first,” Brown routinely joked. He warned lawyers prepping for lengthy cases, “At this age, I’m not even buying green bananas.”

In his earlier days, Brown, appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, was known for upbraiding lawyers for casual dress, tardiness and poor grammar, according to the Times, but he mellowed over time.

Brown earned a reputation for pragmatism on the bench. He used to shake his head when he heard people talk about “activist judges” or push for the election of judges, according to the Eagle.

“I hope the courts can keep their independence and not be subservient to the pressures of other branches of government, or other special interests. It is this separation of powers that is vital to our democracy,” Brown said on his 100th birthday. “It’s what makes America what it is.”

Brown graduated from law school at the University of Kansas in 1933. He had been an old-timer since he was young. Brown joined the Navy in World War II at the age of 37 — the oldest in his unit.

Before his appointment to the federal district bench, Brown served as a bankruptcy judge in Wichita in 1958, tapped by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He took senior status in 1979.

Some of his major cases, according to the Eagle:

During the 1970s, Brown told a Wichita hospital it couldn’t fire a woman because she was single and pregnant and ruled that North High School had to let a girl on its golf team. During the 1980s, Brown ordered millions of dollars in payments to railroad workers denied promotions because they were Americans of African descent. More recently, Brown presided over cases including a $3 million athletic ticket scandal at the University of Kansas, his alma mater.

Before Brown, Joseph Woodrough, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, had been the longest practicing judge in the federal judiciary when he died in 1977 shortly after turning 104, according to the Associated Press.

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