U.S. Appeals Court Judge J. Skelly Wright, who ordered New Orleans schools desegregated in 1960 and seven years later threw out the District schools' controversial "track" system, has notified President Reagan that he will leave his post June 1 and take senior, or inactive, status.
Wright, 75, for years the legal overseer of every aspect of D.C. schools' desegregation, told the president that his current health and advancing age were the main reasons for his departure.
Wright, who has served more than 24 years on the appeals court and 13 years as a U.S. District judge in New Orleans, could not be reached for comment.
The departure of Wright, a well-known activist jurist and the leading liberal on the appeals court for the D.C. Circuit, will give Reagan appointees a majority on the 12-member court, which is exceptionally influential because 98 percent of the cases it hears involve the federal government.
Wright has played a pivotal role in many such cases, including the Pentagon Papers case, in which he dissented from the opinion of two members of a three-judge panel who ruled that The Washington Post could be restrained from printing portions of the papers because they involved national security.
"To allow a government to suppress free speech simply through a system of bureaucratic classification would sell our heritage far, far too cheaply," Wright wrote. Eleven days later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Wright 6 to 3.
But the case that made Wright's name a household word here was his June 19, 1967 decision ordering sweeping changes to eliminate what he called "criminal" discrimination against poor black students in Washington's public schools.
The decision, considered the most important since the 1954 Brown ruling by the Supreme Court, which ended legal segregation of students, was the first to address the de facto segregation prevalent in many northern cities.
Wright, hearing the case because all the U.S. District judges in the city were named in the suit brought by civil rights and home rule activist Julius Hobson, noted in his opinion that the District spent less per capita on education than all states except Tennessee and Arkansas but more per capita on police protection than all states "without exception."
Wright ordered the District to abolish immediately its track system, which dictated the progress of students in the schools. Under the system, students were assigned to educational classes based on their aptitude scores on standardized tests.
"Since these tests do not relate to the Negro and disadvantaged child, track assignments based on such tests relegates Negro and disadvantaged children to the lower tracks from which, because of the reduced curricula and the absence of remedial and compensatory education, as well as continued inappropriate testing, the chance of escape is remote," Wright said in his opinion.
Born in New Orleans in 1911, Wright was the second of seven children of a building superintendent who worked for the city. He attended public schools and won a scholarship to Loyola University, where a job as business manager of the college weekly helped pay the way. After receiving a bachelor of philosophy degree at the Jesuit college, he took a job teaching high school history and did most of his law school work as a Loyola night student.
He graduated from law school in 1934, spent a year as a Loyola history teacher and in 1937 became assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans and helped in the 1940s trials of members of the Huey Long political machine.
During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard and in 1945, while on active duty in London, married Helen Mitchell Patton of Washington, a secretary at the U.S. Embassy.
He practiced law here from 1945 until President Truman named him U.S. attorney in New Orleans in 1948. He was named a U.S. District judge a year later, when he was 38, making him the youngest then named to the federal bench.
His 1960 order desegregating New Orleans schools brought threats against his life and guards to protect him. Although President Kennedy had planned to appoint Wright to a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, he changed his mind after the public reaction of Wright's order and instead named him to the appeals court here.