Judge Herbert William Christenberry
Loyola University New Orleans’ College of Law enjoys a rich history of generating renowned members of the judiciary, and Judge Herbert William Christenberry, J.D. ’24, is no exception. Christenberry was born in New Orleans on December 11, 1897, and served in the United States Navy during World War I from 1917 until the war ended in 1918. After the war, Christenberry worked full-time at a local brokerage firm and eventually became inspired to attend law school.
One Saturday, Christenberry rode the streetcar to Loyola to interview with Father Michael Kenny, S.J., the Regent of Loyola College of Law at that time. Father Kenny asked about his college experience, and Christenberry candidly shared that he had attended high school – but only for one day. Kenny, undoubtedly impressed with Christenberry, allowed him to come back the following Saturday to take a test specifically designed for him, which he obviously passed with flying colors. Kenny accepted him into the law school, and he attended evening classes while continuing to work. After graduating cum laude with an LL.B. (bachelor of law) in 1924, Christenberry married and was transferred by the local brokerage firm to New York City, where he attended classes at New York University.
A Varied Career
Christenberry was in private practice until 1933 and afterward held various posts. From 1933 to 1935, he served as assistant attorney of the Board of Commissioners at the Port of New Orleans; in 1935, he was deputy commissioner on the Louisiana Debt Moratorium Commission; from 1935 to 1937, he was assistant district attorney for the Parish of Orleans; from 1937 to 1942, he was an assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana; and from 1942 to 1947, he was the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Christenberry’s next astonishing career endeavor made history for Loyola College of Law: On July 11, 1947, he was nominated by President Harry S. Truman to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and on December 18, 1947, he was confirmed by the Senate, making Christenberry the first Loyola law graduate to be appointed to the federal judiciary. Loyola held a dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel to honor Christenberry for this amazing achievement. Christenberry’s son, Herbert W. Christenberry Jr., was a senior in high school when he attended the testimonial dinner for his father. “I remember Father Kenny cried throughout the whole testimonial; everyone was praising him for having given my father, who was an amazing man, the opportunity to go to Loyola for law school,” he said.
Christenberry served as chief judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana from 1949 until 1967, and he continued his service on the court until his death on October 5, 1975, in Kentwood, Louisiana. During his long tenure on the federal bench, Christenberry was involved in numerous cases, often sitting on three-judge panels with J. Skelly Wright, who was famous for promoting desegregation in public schools and public transportation. Because jury trials were unpopular in the 1960s and the Direct Action Statute was more favorable in allowing suit in federal court, the federal courts had heavy workloads and Christenberry was on the bench every day, sometimes even on Saturday mornings.
A Hard Worker
Peter Butler, a former law clerk, notes: “I got to work at 8 a.m. and left at 5:30 p.m., but Judge Christenberry was always there before and after me. His whole life was dedicated to the judiciary.” Butler remembers Christenberry as being very human and very fair both on and off the bench. “During my year-and-a-half clerking with Judge Christenberry, I learned more than I did in the next 30 years practicing law.”
Christenberry’s fervor for trying cases was evident; he was extremely active on the bench and often questioned witnesses himself. Joel Borrello, another former law clerk of Christenberry’s, recalls, “The judge was once questioning a witness so veraciously that the witness’ own lawyer objected, which the judge sustained!” He also notes that Christenberry was highly intelligent and had an incredible memory. “I was amazed that he could remember so many of the facts from cases he had tried as a prosecutor.”
Christenberry prepared extensively in advance for his cases and liked to rule from the bench. Although Christenberry was involved in a much larger number of cases, he authored only a little more than 150 opinions because he felt that district judges rendered too many opinions that were often excessively lengthy and that opinions should be published only when exceptionally important issues were at stake.
Controversial Cases and Threatening Calls
Christenberry’s docket consisted heavily of corporate matters, personal injury claims under the Direct Action Statute, and maritime cases. He was very conscious of the need for public servants to behave correctly and would issue severe sentences to public officers who abused their positions by breaching the public’s trust. A law review article called him one of a critical mass of progressive Southern judges.
Christenberry was involved in many notable cases, including several concerning the desegregation of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. Herbert W. Christenberry Jr. remembers that when the desegregation cases began, his father received threatening phone calls and letters but they did not bother him in the least; his logic was that if someone was going to harm him, they weren’t going to warn him beforehand. In a memorable incident, one night, the younger Christenberry answered a phone call in which someone said to tell the judge (who had the habit of parking on the street in front of their house, going in to have dinner, and then moving the car into the garage), “When he goes to put his car in the garage, we’re gonna get him.” He told his father, who simply laughed and went out as usual to move the car into the garage. When he did, he saw there was a car parked on the street with the windows down. He walked to the car, stuck his head in, and confronted the occupants. “Dad used to joke about it later, saying he probably messed up some guy’s evening since it was a young couple in the car.”
A Fair Voice
And Christenberry soldiered on in the dismantling of segregation. In Wilson v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, the district court ordered LSU’s law school to admit a black student because Southern University did not afford him the same educational opportunities. This decision was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. Ludley v. Board of Supervisors dealt with Act 15, which was passed by the Louisiana State Legislature in 1956 and required all students to submit a certificate of good moral character signed by their high school principals and their local superintendents when applying to institutes of higher learning. A companion act made it a crime punishable by dismissal for any teacher or school official to favor integration, and the current chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Segregation made it clear that signing a certificate of good moral character for any black student applying to a previously all-white college constituted advocacy of integration. The district court held both statutes unconstitutional, and the decision was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 1965, Christenberry received national media attention for citing police in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and holding two public officials in contempt for their failure to protect civil rights demonstrators. Previously, he had enjoined the Bogalusa police from using violence or threats to prevent blacks from exercising their civil rights, and he ordered them to protect blacks and other civil rights advocates from harassment.
Christenberry was also instrumental in the desegregation of schools in Plaquemines Parish. At one school every white teacher resigned when 30 black students enrolled and no replacement teachers were found. Christenberry ruled that the students could attend other schools and ordered contempt proceedings against two educators. In United States v. Plaquemines Parish School Board, he laid down criteria to be observed in eradicating discrimination and desegregating the parish schools.
Christenberry also presided over the prominent Shaw v. Garrison litigation. In 1971, he issued a temporary restraining order blocking further state prosecution of Clay L. Shaw in connection with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Later, Christenberry issued a permanent injunction to stop New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison from prosecuting Shaw for perjury in state court after ruling that Garrison lacked any factual basis or substantiation for the case against Shaw, the case had been brought in bad faith, the case represented selective law enforcement, and Garrison was motivated by a desire for financial gain. This ruling was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Loyal to Loyola
Christenberry was forever grateful to Loyola and to Father Kenny for taking a chance on him, and he taught Evidence at Loyola College of Law for more than 30 years without remuneration. At that time, there was no Code of Evidence in Louisiana, so he relied on external texts and cases. “I graduated from law school at Loyola in 1957, and my dad taught me Evidence,” the younger Christenberry said. “He was the only Evidence teacher, and I got an A in his course. He said, ‘People aren’t going to understand it,’ but I told him people in my class would understand because any time there was a tough question he’d save it and give it to me. My dad held my feet to the fire in class, so I didn’t dare not study Evidence; I was better-prepared than anyone in the class, and my classmates knew it, and they would laugh about it.”