As he celebrates his 93rd birthday today, Judge Wesley Brown will still juggle a full caseload in Wichita's federal court
02/26/2010 1:48 PM
08/05/2014 5:59 PM
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The Wichita Eagle on Thursday, June 22, 2000.
Every morning, Judge Wesley Brown climbs the stairs from the basement to his fourth-floor chambers in the U.S. Courthouse.
As he celebrates his 93rd birthday today, when most people his age have been retired for decades, Brown still juggles a full caseload in Wichita's federal court.
He's traveled by horse and buggy and surfed the Internet. His life spans both Babe Ruth and Mark McGwire. He wrote his own pink slip during the Great Depression. He has seen two world wars and the end of a millennium.
Since President John F. Kennedy appointed Brown a federal district judge, he has called on that library of life experiences in dispensing justice in a time of swift social change.
"As a judge, your experiences help you understand people and why they act the way they do and the problems they face," said Brown, who first came into the federal courts as a bankruptcy judge in 1958.
Brown grew up next to neighbors who were freed slaves. As a judge in the 1980s, he ordered millions of dollars in payments to railroad workers denied promotions because they were Americans of African descent.
After Brown's father had to quit work because of a blinding illness in 1915, his mother left home and went to work to support the family. In 1971, Judge Brown ruled a Wichita hospital couldn't fire a woman because she was single and pregnant. A year later, he ordered North High School to allow a girl to compete on the golf team.
"I have not been an innovative judge," Brown said. "I've not tried to make law but just to interpret it."
'Very jolly and very strict'
Brown, who doesn't look to have aged much in 30 years, thinks before he speaks. He pauses to choose just the right words. Lawyers know Brown has strict rules in the courtroom, tempered by his wry wit.
"I always say we're appointed for life or good behavior, whichever ends first," Brown said.
So far, Brown has shown no signs of slowing down.
Not only does he climb those four flights of stairs every day, he plays golf at least once a week, which doesn't surprise lawyers who appear before him.
"He has a very high intellect and amazing energy," said the U.S. attorney for Kansas, Jackie Williams.
And he demands order in the court.
"He can be very jolly and very strict," said Warner Eisenbise, who has practiced law in Wichita for 41 years.
"Many lawyers have lived in extreme fear of him.''
Eisenbise remembered one lawyer's filing a motion that contained written insults of Brown. Brown read the motion aloud for other lawyers to hear as he slowly seethed underneath.
"I remember his face slowly get redder and redder," Eisenbise said. "If you're a lawyer, you don't want to see that."
Lawyers do not show up late to Brown's court. And when they get there, he keeps everyone in line.
"Over the years there may have been an occasion where a defendant, after pleading guilty or being convicted, complains a lawyer was incompetent," Brown said. "Well, if you're a judge, my view is you can't let a lawyer be incompet ent."
A judicial example
Judges across Kansas have learned from Brown's example.
Fellow U.S. District Judge Monti Belot served as law clerk under Brown, as have Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Jerry Elliott and Sedgwick County District Judge Paul Buchanan.
Trials move swiftly in Brown's court.
"He has a remarkable ability to cut through the chaff and get to the key issues," Belot said. "He doesn't put up with any fooling around. All of the judges have a great admiration for that talent."
Every weekday afternoon, federal district and magistrate judges meet in Brown's chamber for a private brown bag lunch.
"You know, he could have retired years ago at full salary," Belot said. "But I think one of the reasons he stays is because he doesn't believe in doing something for nothing. He couldn't take the taxpayers' money for not working."
An honest day's work
Brown, a past president of the Kansas Bar Association, learned an honest day's work from his father growing up in Hutchinson.
Forced out of a career as a traveling salesman by an illness that blinded him, the elder Brown encouraged his son to study law.
"If you learn the law, you've got something they can't take away from you," Brown's father told him.
Brown entered the University of Kansas amid a booming economy under President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. He worked odd jobs during his undergraduate studies but became impatient and quit after three years to begin attending Kansas City School of Law.
Working by day on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Co. factory in Kansas City and studying law by night, Brown made it through two years of classes. But with the strain of the Great Depression, Brown moved from the assembly line to writing pink slips for employees. One night, he had to write his own.
During the next year, a lawyer friend of the family opened his law library, so Brown could continue studying.
As soon as he found another job, as secretary in a law firm for $15 a week, Brown finished his degree.
After passing the bar exam in 1933, Brown went to work for a Hutchinson law office making $25 a month. That year, Brown married Mary Miller, a law school classmate. They would stay together nearly 60 years, until her death in 1991.
Believing he wasn't earning enough to support his new wife and a family, Brown decided to run for Reno County attorney. Following the political leanings of his father, Brown ran as a Democrat. His opponent ran on a pro-Prohibition platform. Brown's campaign slogan was simply "Enforce the Law." Brown won.
Brown lived up to his promises, enforcing the prohibition of alcohol sales that would later be repealed. He busted bootleggers and even raided the Hutchinson Country Club for pouring spirits.
Age has never stood in Brown's way, even when he enlisted in the Navy during World War II in 1944. At 37, Brown was the oldest man in his unit.
Brown first thought about becoming a federal judge while stationed in the Philippines. Once Lt. Brown heard that a federal judge position had come open, he sent a wire to President Harry Truman, asking that the vacancy be held open until the war ended. Truman filled the slot anyway.
A move to Wichita
After the war, Brown returned to private practice, where he represented the city of Hutchinson in a nine-year legal battle to win rights to implement a flood control plan for the Cow Creek and Arkansas River.
By 1958, Brown received his first federal appointment as a bankruptcy judge in Wichita. He moved with Mary and their two children from Hutchinson.
Four years later, Kennedy appointed Brown, and the Senate confirmed him, to district judge.
Last week, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Wichita Bar Association.
Among the three district judges in Wichita, Brown heard 20 percent of the criminal cases and 30 percent of the civil cases filed last year.
It's enough work to keep him climbing the courthouse stairs.
"As long as I can perform a service and perform it adequately," Brown said, "I will probably stay with it."
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