BR’s U.S. Judge John Parker dies at age 85

Tenure began with desegregation case

U.S. District Judge John V. Parker, the long-serving Baton Rouge federal judge best known for ordering cross-town busing as part of his oversight of the divisive East Baton Rouge Parish school desegregation suit, died Monday night.

Parker, 85, a senior judge in the Middle District of Louisiana since 1998, had served as a district judge in Baton Rouge’s federal court since 1979.

His oldest child, Mike Parker, also an attorney in Baton Rouge, said his father was suffering from congestive heart failure in recent months. Mike Parker said his father returned home from the hospital on Friday and died at his Baton Rouge home.

The elder Parker maintained a full load as a senior judge for many years but cut back and ultimately stopped taking cases when his wife, Elizabeth, took ill. She died in March 2010.

“He had not been active with the court for several years,” said Mike Parker, though he said his father never officially retired from the bench.

Tentative plans are to hold a visitation and memorial service Saturday morning at University Methodist Church.

The desegregation lawsuit, filed in 1956 on behalf of 37 black children, came to its official end in 2007. Parker inherited the case shortly after he was appointed to the judiciary and presided over it until July 2001.

U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson described Parker as a courageous man.

“He received death threats. He was threatened with bodily injury. He was ostracized socially. What sustained him was his devotion to the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law,” Jackson said.

Parker presided over a wide variety of criminal and civil cases during his time on the court. Jackson came before him many times back when Jackson worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Jackson said Parker’s legacy is greater than the school desegregation case.

“Literally thousands of litigants entered his court seeking justice, and I like to think that justice was meted out every time. It would be unfortunate to have one case define him professionally,” Jackson said.

For instance, Parker handled lawsuits emanating from a chemical leak from a barge owned by the Ingram Barge Co., loaded with 400,000 gallons of toluene and benzene, that capsized across the Mississippi River from Southern University in 1997.

As chief judge, Parker also spent years seeking a new courthouse. In 1985, falling plaster and a leaking roof got so bad that Parker ordered a grand jury investigation of the General Services Administration. Parker’s effort finally led to construction of the $23 million Russell B. Long Federal Building, which is three times the size of the old courthouse and opened its doors in 1994.

Parker is a native of Baton Rouge and graduated first from Baton Rouge High School and then LSU in 1949 and was an honor graduate of LSU Law School three years later. He spent 12 years working as an assistant parish attorney and served in private practice for 13 more years before he was recommended to the federal bench by then President Jimmy Carter.

Parker took over the desegregation case from U.S. District Judge E. Gordon West weeks after arriving on the job.

“Dad walked in and there it was: ‘Welcome to the judging business,’ ” Mike Parker recalled.

In 1975, West had granted the school system unitary status, meaning it no longer operated separate black and white school systems.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, disagreed and sent the case back, laying out where the school system’s desegregation plans were falling short. West became a senior judge and decided to hand the case to the newly arrived Parker.

Bob Hammonds, an attorney in Baton Rouge who represented the school system in the litigation from 1978 to 1995, said Parker was bound by the higher court rulings he inherited.

“I always found him to be very fair, very professional. It’s a great loss to the legal community,” Hammonds said.

The remedies Parker ended up imposing, especially 15 years of forced busing, sparked often violent anger. Parker also carried on a long-running feud with a succession of school boards, which he said failed to follow his dictates.

Parker’s rulings and the subsequent uproar over them have been blamed by many for the mass defection of children — especially from middle-class, white families — from the school system. The school system was about 40 percent black when Parker took on the case. Today it’s more than 80 percent black.

“Years after that, if he was out in public he was almost always accompanied by a U.S. marshal,” Hammonds said.

One of the fiercest critics of Parker’s busing order, then School Board member Jim Talbot, said he was not critical of the man, just what he felt compelled to do.

“I think that John Parker did the best with what he had to work with,” Talbot said. “I think if he knew then what we know now, he would have modified that order. I really believe that. It wouldn’t have been so devastating to the parish.”

Talbot also disclosed something he said he’s told perhaps 10 people. He said he secretly went to Parker’s office in the late 1980s and worked out a plan with the judge that would have ended busing in favor of dividing the parish into 13 horizontal strips of land, with neighborhood schools within each strip. Talbot said he was able to get only five out of 12 School Board members to support it and couldn’t tell them he already had the approval of Judge Parker. The plan died. Talbot thinks it was the last chance to stop white flight.

“I can tell you he was truly interested in the welfare of the parish,” Talbot said. “I trusted him and he trusted me.”

In Parker’s parting statement in July 2001 — when he announced in court documents he was transferring the case to another judge — he criticized school leaders for failing to make serious efforts to desegregate the schools.

“Let the record show, however, that the School Board has many teachers and other employees who do understand the need to get this business behind them,” Parker wrote. “What they lack is leadership from their leaders.”

Parker handed the case off to yet another newly seated judge, U.S. District Judge James Brady. Now, a senior judge himself, Brady said many people wrongly disparaged Parker.

“People would come in and see me, or stop me on the street and say, ‘Judge Parker blew this or got that wrong,’ ” Brady recalled. “I’d stop them and say, ‘Judge Parker only applied the law. If you’re expecting me to be any different then you’re going to be disappointed.’ ”

Two years after taking the case, and after many hours of negotiation and two outside mediators, Brady approved a final settlement of the divisive case. The school system completed the settlement in 2007, finally achieving unitary status.

Talbot considers it an empty victory.

“We’re segregated again,” he said.