William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal


Anne S. Emanuel


Elbert Parr Tuttle joined the federal bench in 1954, shortly after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. In 1960, he became the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the court with jurisdiction over most of the deep south. As Chief Judge, he forged a jurisprudence that proved effective in overcoming the intransigence and outright rebellion of those who had long denied fundamental constitutional rights to African Americans.

This Essay traces an episode that occurred in 1931, when Tuttle spearheaded an effort to obtain a fair trial for John Downer, a black man accused by a white woman of rape. As a National Guard officer, Tuttle joined in an effort that saved Downer from lynching by a mob. He then took up Downer's cause in the courts. Even with the help of a number of highly regarded attorneys, he was unable to save Downer from death in Georgia's electric chair.

Tuttle's commitment to obtaining justice for one man, John Downer, would be echoed in a long and distinguished career. Elbert Tuttle died at the age of ninety-eight on June 23, 1996. An editorial in The New York Times commemorating his life and work closed with a fitting epitaph: "He brought honor to his calling and justice to millions of Americans."