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Law and the Judicial System

parsons judge court district

Parsons began his legal career in private practice. In addition, from 1949 to 1950 he taught constitutional law at John Marshall Law School. Parsons served as assistant corporate counsel for the city of Chicago from 1949 until 1951, and his hard work paid off: Parsons was appointed assistant U.S. district attorney for northern Illinois in 1951. With his education complete and a bright future, Parsons was able to focus on his personal life. In 1952, he married Amy Margaret Maxwell. They remained married until her death in 1967. Parsons served as assistant U.S. district attorney until 1960 when he was elected to the office of Cook County Superior Court judge. Almost immediately after assuming the Superior Court judgeship, Parsons was handed the Summerdale police conspiracy case. Chicago had long been known for political and police corruption. But the Summerdale scandal rocked the city when the public discovered that for over one year eight police officers had worked with a burglar named Richard Morrison to rob north-side retail stores. Most of the officers received sentences from two to five years. The Summerdale scandal resulted in the reorganization of the Chicago police department.

Early one Sunday morning in August 1961, Parsons received a phone call from President John F. Kennedy stating that he was naming Parsons as the first African American U.S. district court judge. Parsons was to take the seat of Judge Philip Leo Sullivan who had died in June 1960 after twenty-six years on the bench. While Parsons was not the first African American appointed as a federal judge, he was the first to receive life tenure. Judges Irvin C. Mollison, William Henry Hastie, and Scovel Richardson were appointed to judgeships prior to Parsons, but they received fixed term appointments. Parsons served as a U.S. district court judge for over thirty years, progressing to chief judge of the court in 1975, then to senior judge in 1981, and finally to chief judge emeritus in 1992 when he retired.

Parsons made headlines for his outspokenness, ethics, humility, and selflessness. He was scrutinized inside and outside court. In 1969, Parsons caused a tremendous stir when he gave an interview to the New York Times in which he stated that African Americans should not get involved in “white man’s crimes” such as counterfeiting, mail fraud, embezzling, and other similar crimes which require a level of skill which most African Americans did not possess given their limited career opportunities especially in those professions which required a high degree of technical skill.

In his early years as a U.S. district court judge, Parsons was accused of being soft on crime when he gave a bank president who had embezzled $58,000 a ninety-day jail term. In 1971, as reported by Gary Green in Federal Probation , Parsons made legal history when he placed the Atlantic Richfield Company on probation “so that he could monitor the company’s progress in complying with his order to develop an oil spill response program.” Parsons ruled in 1985 that United Airlines could continue to employ flight attendants who were hired during the pilot’s strike, which caused a tremendous stir, also. As quoted by James Warren in the Chicago Sun-Times , Parson stated that United Airlines “must pay full fringe benefits including reinstatement of group insurance and medical benefits to all flight attendants who refused to cross the pilots’ picket lines.” United was also required to give “immediate seniority accrual to the flight attendants, even if they did not return to work immediately.” In November 1988, Parsons overturned an appeals court ruling against the display of religious symbols on public property. In his decision, Parsons argued that the previous court’s ruling was a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speec,h not a violation of the separation of church and state. According to Adrienne Drell, Parsons further stated, “The Public Building Commissions opposition to the créche and menorah is discrimination in its rankest form. It goes against the very grain of Americanism to see discrimination against anyone particularly against people because of their religion.” Another key decision made by Parsons was his upholding the city of Chicago’s Tenants Bill of Rights in 1987. He also drew attention for the role he played in the 1970 air traffic controllers’ strike.

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