When George N. Leighton started practicing law in 1946, he represented clients at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue.
"All my clients were defendants in criminal cases who had no money," Leighton, 99, said by phone Wednesday from his home in Plymouth, Mass. "And nine times out of 10, it was difficult to find out if they had a defense.
"They came to me because they heard I was looking for work. … And I represented them. Some cases went up to the Supreme Court of Illinois and a few went to the Supreme Court of the United States. I won some and I lost some, and thus I began a practice that was successful."
So successful, in fact, that the building casually referred to as "26th and Cal" will soon bear Leighton's name.
The Cook County Board voted today to call the courthouse "The Honorable George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building."
"His success in life is truly astonishing," County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told commissioners.
Raised by Cape Verdean immigrants in Massachusetts, Leighton served in World War II, graduated from Howard University and earned a degree at Harvard Law School.
He came to Chicago 66 years ago at a time when a black man could neither rent a downtown office nor catch a taxi in the Loop.
He eventually founded Moore, Ming and Leighton, which became one of the largest predominantly black law firms in the country. He defended at least 200 criminal charges in bench and jury trials and handled at least 175 appeals in state and federal courts.
Developing a reputation as a civil rights lawyer, Leighton (left) served as general counsel and president of the NAACP's Chicago office. He represented clients in Illinois and in southern states in cases involving voting rights, integrated schools, fair housing and equal access to jury service.
Leighton once traveled to Alabama to challenge a state constitutional amendment that required residents to pass a test before they could vote. Contending that election officials amended the constitution to prevent black people from voting, Leighton persuaded a federal court to declare the amendment unconstitutional.
In 1964, former Mayor Richard J. Daley called Leighton to ask him to run for Cook County circuit judge.
"You know Chicago well enough to know that in 1964, if a lawyer received a phone call from Richard J. Daley, it was like that lawyer being elected by a landslide," Leighton said with a laugh. "And in fact, I was elected by a landslide."
Leighton served on the trial court for five years; moved to the Illinois Appellate Court for seven years; and sat on the bench in Chicago's federal court for 11 years.
In 2005, Leighton received the American Bar Association Medal, which is the ABA's highest honor. Four years later, the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission started an annual award in his honor. And Chicago Lawyer magazine named Leighton its "Person of the Year" last year.
Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans issued a statement that honoring Leighton at the courthouse "is a well-deserved honor that should be given while Judge Leighton is still with us."
"He is an icon in the justice and civil rights community. … I'm not at all surprised he would be recognized in this way," Evans said.
The idea to rename the courthouse started last fall when Ald. Edward M. Burke sent Preckwinkle a letter to suggest it.
Leighton couldn't attend today's meeting, but his grandson, Stephen Belyn, thanked the board for the designation. In addition, Jenner & Block LLP attorney Jeffrey D. Colman, Neal & Leroy LLC attorney Anne L. Fredd and Circuit Judge William H. Hooks spoke in favor of the honor at the meeting.
"I sit there every day," Hooks said about the criminal courthouse. "And the young men and women who come through … my courtroom and through that building need the type of inspiration that that building name is going to be branded. It gives us … an excuse to explain to them that they can do well no matter where they start."
Leighton said he's proud of the courthouse honor. A dedication ceremony hasn't been scheduled yet.
Asked about his health, Leighton talked about getting close to the century mark.
"Last Oct. 22, I paused at about 4 o'clock in the morning to recognize my 99th birthday. And it felt good," he said. "I'm looking forward to doing the same thing the next birthday. … After all, making 100 birthdays isn't easy."