H. Emory Widener Jr.; Longtime Judge on U.S. Appeals Court

Associated Press
Friday, September 21, 2007

H. Emory Widener Jr., who served 35 years as a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has died. He was 83.

Judge Widener died Sept. 19 at his home in southwest Virginia, Tom Schrinel, deputy circuit executive for the Richmond court, said Thursday. Schrinel said he had no additional details on Judge Widener's death.

Judge Widener was the nation's longest-serving federal appeals court judge until July, when he took senior status, a form of semi-retirement for judges 65 and older.

He was born in 1923 in Abingdon, where he still lived. He served in the Navy from 1944 to 1949 and in the reserves from 1951 to 1952. He received his bachelor's degree from Washington and Lee University in 1953 and worked in private practice in Bristol for more than a decade.

President Richard M. Nixon appointed Judge Widener to the federal appeals court in 1972.

The 4th Circuit has five vacancies, the most of any federal appeals court. The circuit, widely considered the nation's most conservative, covers Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina. It has handled some of the country's biggest terrorism cases, including that of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

During the 1990s, when the court built its reputation, Judge Widener was typically lumped in with the conservative majority, said Arthur D. Hellman, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies the federal courts.

"He was not as conservative as some of the other judges on the court," Hellman said. "He was closer to middle of the road."

One of Judge Widener's rulings, in 1994, dealt with a Hispanic student's challenge of a scholarship program for blacks only at the University of Maryland. Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Widener said the school had failed to prove that its scholarship program could effectively remedy past discrimination against blacks.

"Mere knowledge of historical fact (past discrimination) is not the kind of present effect that can justify a race-exclusive remedy," Judge Widener wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, let the appeals court ruling stand in 1995.

Retired Judge Charles H. Smith Jr. remembered Judge Widener as a "lawyer's lawyer and an astute student of the law."

"When I was a pup . . . he helped me out," Smith said.

But opposing Judge Widener on cases was nerve-wracking, Smith said. Judge Widener always won.

"I was always shaking in my boots when I tried cases against him," he said.

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