New Orleans’ Landmark Cases That Shape the Course of American Society

With one foot in the past and the other in the present, the Crescent City has been a crucible for some of the most consequential legal battles in American history.

From pivotal civil rights cases to landmark decisions in the realm of public corruption and corporate accountability, the legal tapestry of New Orleans reflects both the city’s triumphs and its struggles for justice and equality. They’ve left not only an indelible print on the city itself—they continue to shape the course of justice in the entire country.

The echoes of Plessy v. Ferguson, a seminal case in American jurisprudence, still reverberate through the corridors of New Orleans’ legal history. The 1896 case — arising from a challenge to Louisiana’s segregated railroad cars — saw Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, arrested for refusing to vacate a whites-only rail car. Rev. Lawrence W. Moore, professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, underscored its significance, emphasizing its pivotal role in entrenching legal segregation for decades to come.

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“That case came from New Orleans,” said Moore, “It involved separate passenger cars for railroads based on race, and the Supreme Court approved of the concept of separate but equal.”

Using the Plessy case as an agent for change, Judge J. Skelly Wright, a towering figure in New Orleans’ legal history, championed the civil rights movement through his groundbreaking rulings as a federal district judge. Wright’s unwavering commitment to equality and justice paved the way for progress in the fight against segregation, challenging common practices and inspiring a new generation of activists.

Moore highlighted the impact of Wright’s civil rights decisions, particularly in the realm of school desegregation. Wright’s legacy remains indelibly etched in the city’s legal consciousness.

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The aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson continues to shape contemporary debates, as Mitchell Crusto, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, pointed out.
“With the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ‘anti-Affirmative Action’ case of SFFA (Students for Fair Admissions), we are returning to the dejure racial segregation of schools as established in Plessy v. Ferguson,” Crusto said.

In January 2022, former-Gov. John Bel Edwards, issued a full posthumous pardon to Homer A. Plessy at a ceremony held near the spot near where Plessy was arrested. Descendents of both Plessy and Ferguson have formed a foundation to commemorate the legacy of the case, symbolizing an ongoing commitment to confront the enduring legacies of segregation and injustice.

Beyond the realm of civil rights, New Orleans has witnessed landmark cases that have reshaped corporate accountability and exposed the underbelly of public corporate corruption.

“The tobacco companies had been sued for decades and had prevailed. The first chinks in their armor were found by these plaintiffs’ lawyers in New Orleans.”

– Dane Ciolino

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Dane Ciolino, attorney and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, pointed to the groundbreaking litigation in New Orleans against tobacco companies, led by plaintiffs’ lawyers such as Wendell Gautier. The legal team achieved unprecedented success in holding tobacco companies accountable for their role in perpetuating the public health crisis of smoking-related illnesses.

These cases marked a turning point in holding corporate giants accountable for their actions, setting a precedent for future legal battles against corporate malfeasance.

“They managed to have some of the first successful cases against the tobacco companies,” Ciolino said. “The tobacco companies had been sued for decades and had prevailed. The first chinks in their armor were found by these plaintiffs’ lawyers in New Orleans.”

New Orleans has also been a battleground for high-profile criminal prosecutions, targeting public officials accused of corruption. Ciolino pointed to the prosecutions of former-Gov. Edwin Edwards and former-Mayor Ray Nagin as examples of the region’s ongoing struggle against public corruption.

For Ciolino, these cases serve as a stark reminder of the importance of transparency and accountability in governance, and the enduring legacy of these prosecutions continues to shape public discourse and policy decisions.

In the wake of natural disasters, New Orleans has grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing legal battles over insurance claims. Ciolino said the unprecedented scale of first-party hurricane litigation — wherein homeowners have sought recourse against insurers for denied claims and inadequate compensation — has “been at a scale that has not been seen throughout the country, and that’s partly responsible for the current insurance crisis.”

Ciolino attributed part of the blame to “overzealous litigation fueled by anti-insurance industry sentiment.” He said the ramifications of these legal battles reverberate beyond New Orleans, contributing to a broader discourse on insurance regulation and disaster response.

From the enduring legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson to the ongoing battles for corporate accountability and justice in the aftermath of natural disasters, the legal tapestry of New Orleans reflects both the city’s resilience and its ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

If history can be a guide and help navigate the complexities of the legal system, New Orleans is luckier than most. There are lessons upon lessons to be learned here.

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