John Robert Brown was a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit from 1955 to his death in 1993 and Chief Judge from 1967 to 1979. He is best known by history as one of the “Fifth Circuit Four” – four judges on the Fifth Circuit who were important to the advancement of civil rights.
Judge Brown attended high school in Nebraska, receiving his A.B. from the University of Nebraska in 1930. He received his J.D. from University of Michigan in 1932 and he served in the United States Air Force during World War II.
Before being appointed to the Fifth Circuit by President Eisenhower, Brown practiced as an admiralty lawyer with the Houston firm Royston Rayzor starting in 1932. He is remembered as an expert in a admiralty law. Both the University of Texas’ admiralty moot court competition and the John Brown Admiralty Collection at the University of Houston Law Center library are named for him. Brown also was active in politics, serving as the Republican chairman for Harris County.
In the 1960's, he was one of four Judges John Minor Wisdom, Elbert Tuttle, and Richard Rives – who played an important role in a series of decisions that enforced desegregation and protected minority voting rights. At that time, the Fifth Circuit included Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Along with Brown wrote the 1962 order that James Meredith be enrolled into the all-white University of Mississippi over the opposition of Gov. Ross Barnett. He also participated in decisions to overturn the Texas poll tax and to stop Georgia and Alabama officials from barring African-Americans from voting.
As Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit, Judge Brown played an important role in the administrative decisions that resulted in the split of the Fifth Circuit into the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits. He took senior status in 1984. Judge Brown is remembered not only for his various roles in history, but also as a lively, joyful personality who often wore colorful sports coats.