Jerry Summers: Judge Frank W. Wilson

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Any attorney who practiced in the United State District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee between the years 1961-1982 can testify to the legal ability and high ethical standards of Judge Frank Wiley Wilson who was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to fill the vacancy created by the elevation to senior status by Judge Leslie Darr on March 25, 1961. Wilson was nominated for the office on May 24, 1961, and confirmed by the United States Senate on June 15, 1961.


The speed with which he was appointed was both a tribute to his legal ability and high moral ethics during a period of time when federal judgeships were filled without the political scrutiny and controversy by Congress today.


Judge Wilson was a native of Knoxville and a graduate of the University of Tennessee in 1939 and the College of Law in 1941.  After serving in the military in the United States Army Air Force as a Sergeant from 1941-1946 he returned to Oak Ridge to re-enter the practice of law with attorney Eugene Joyce. 


Active in the Democratic Party as a Southern Conservative he ran unsuccessfully for Congress from the Second Congressional District against Howard Baker, Sr., in 1950.


He remained an active Democrat in the heavily Republican District and supported Democratic Senatorial candidate Estes Kefauver when Kefauver defeated incumbent Senator Tom Stewart in the 1948 Democratic primary “coonskin cap” campaign.

Kefauver put on a fur hat and refuted political boss E.H. Crump of Memphis accusation that Kefauver was working for the “pinkos” in a televised speech. 


With the help of his law partner Eugene Joyce they also worked on behalf of Senator Albert Gore, Sr. and Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960.  As a result he was selected to be federal judge for the federal vacancy in Chattanooga when Judge Darr retired.  A condition of the appointment was that the new judge would have to live in Chattanooga. 


The positive accolades attributed to Judge Wilson are too many to list in this short article.  A long overdue treatise on his life is being prepared by retired Hamilton County Circuit Judge Neil Thomas, Jr. and is expected to cover the entire life of the subject. 


During his career he handled many high profile cases including the Jimmy Hoffa criminal trial, school desegregation, the teaching of the Bible in Hamilton County and City of Chattanooga public schools, and the First Amendment case of the Broadway play, Hair, that played at the Memorial Auditorium. 


While the general public and criminal defendants usually saw the professional side of Judge Wilson, there was much more about his personality. 


His involvement in many charitable and public institutions was extensive but not well known. While known as a tough sentencer in criminal cases, he kept in touch with the individuals that he sentenced to the federal penitentiary.  He corresponded with them regularly and encouraged them to do better.  His visits to federal prisons to see prisoners was known to only a few close allies and his family. 


A teetotaler and dedicated Methodist, he and his wife, Helen, would frown upon the efforts of one of his strongest political supporters who attempted to bring liquor into the Wilson home when he stayed with them. 


He controlled his courtroom with dignity, was widely respected, and appreciated lawyers who were prepared and tried a good case before him.  


Possessor of a coy sense of humor he could almost absorb a joke about himself when he made one of his infrequent courtroom blunders.  In the Hair obscenity case, after the defense introduced a number of pornographic magazines and sex toys to show what was readily available in the Hamilton County area, Judge Wilson instructed the jury that they would be adjourned for the day and that “the Court would look after the evidence overnight.” When the jury and courtroom spectators and attorneys burst into laughter he sheepishly corrected his statement to mean that the exhibits would be locked up by the clerk of the court. 


The most famous of his many trials during the 21 years he was on the federal bench had to be the Jimmy Hoffa criminal trial.  The labor leader’s defense team continuously attempted to provoke Judge Wilson and to cause a mistrial.  In spite of said tactics he maintained his calm demeanor and gave all parties a fair trial. As a result of the tension and stress created by the tactics of the defense during the six-week trial he suffered a severe heart attack.  Always a workaholic, he returned to the bench and would conduct civil pre-trial conferences lying on a couch in his office during a recess of a case on trial or during jury deliberations in another case.  It was remarked by family and friends that the tension of the Hoffa trial took 10 years off of his life. He died on September 29, 1982.  


Two significant events took place in his life that vividly demonstrate the honor and respect that he held in the judicial and legal communities.  


The July 1980 issue of the national magazine The American Lawyer contained an article titled “The Best and Worse Federal Judges.” Frank Wilson was selected as the Sixth Circuit's best judge in the four states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. 


A rare tribute to a lifelong Democrat like Frank Wilson was paid to Judge Wilson when he was selected to be one of five nominees to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court in 1975 and invited to the White House by Republican President Gerald Ford for an interview.  


Judge Frank Wilson set the standard for excellence as a federal judge which all judicial officers since have tried to imitate. 


The book that Judge Neil Thomas is preparing will provide substantial additional information on the interesting life of Judge Wilson as a lawyer, judge, politician, community leader, husband and father. 


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Jerry Summers can be reached at




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