A friend said it was impossible to quickly sum up George N. Leighton's accomplishments.
"They are so voluminous that it would take an entire Law Bulletin to properly reflect what his contributions to the justice system in the past 65-plus years have been," attorney Jeffrey D. Colman of Jenner & Block LLP said.
Leighton began his legal career at a time when a black man could not rent an office or catch a cab in the Loop. He ended it as a revered lawyer and former judge who had changed the lives of many people.
Leighton, who retired last year, turned 100 today.
Leighton said he got a great deal of satisfaction out of representing the unjustly accused during his career.
"What I like are some of the cases which I entered without compensation and undertook to represent a person who had been deprived of his liberty without due process of law and spent some time in jail for a crime he did not commit," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Plymouth, Mass.
Leighton said many of these clients had been tortured by police.
"I can't think of a greater cruelty to impose on a human being than to be put in a prison, no matter how small or large, for a crime you didn't commit and a crime your imprisoners know you didn't commit," he said.
In addition to representing clients in criminal matters, Leighton took on cases involving voting rights, fair housing, integrated schools and equal access to jury service.
"One thing about getting old that I find very enjoyable is to think back on times when you were up against it," Leighton said.
Leighton was up against it while representing Harvey Clark, a black veteran who rented an apartment in Cicero but was blocked by police from occupying it.
After Leighton obtained an injunction allowing Clark and his family to move in, a crowd of white people set the building on fire.
A grand jury called to investigate the matter indicted Leighton for purportedly conspiring to incite the riot. The court threw out the indictment.
Leighton was born on Oct. 22, 1912, in New Bedford, Mass., to Cape Verdean immigrants. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade, but later enrolled in Howard University as a provisional student.
Leighton earned an undergraduate degree in 1940, served in the military in World War II and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1946, the year he came to Chicago.
In 1951, Leighton co-founded Moore, Ming and Leighton, which became one of the largest predominantly black law firms in the United States. He also served as general counsel and president of the NAACP's Chicago office.
Leighton was elected to the Cook County Circuit Court in 1964 and took a seat on the Illinois Appellate Court five years later. He was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 1976.
Leighton left the bench in 1987 and joined Neal & Leroy LLC, where he handled many prisoner rights cases.
Colman arranged for friends in Chicago to sing "Happy Birthday" to Leighton in a conference call today.
Among Leighton's admirers is Chief U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman.
"He is an outstanding individual and an inspiration to us all," Holderman said.
Ann Claire Williams, the first black judge to serve on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Leighton had an "extraordinary record" as a lawyer and judge.
"His leadership in the area of civil rights, criminal rights and constitutional rights is unparalleled," she said.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also praised Leighton.
"George Leighton is a fair, thoughtful and compassionate champion of human rights," she said.
Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans described his mentor and former law professor as a "principled and courageous" man.
Although he retired, Leighton is not just sitting around the house. He renewed his driver's license last week.
Leighton said he has a favorite piece of advice he likes to give law students and young lawyers.
"Never give up," he said. "Never give up."