Gerald Heaney, influential Minn. judge, dies at 92

Gerald Heaney
Retired judge Gerald Heaney shown in a 2006 file photo. Heaney, who served on the federal bench in Duluth for 40 years, died Tuesday at the age of 92.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Retired federal appeals court Judge Gerald Heaney, a longtime DFL activist and an influential jurist, died Tuesday in his hometown of Duluth. He was 92.

One of Heaney's highest profile cases occurred in the 1980s, when Heaney helped draw up a plan to desegregate the St. Louis schools, creating the largest student transfer for racial balance in the United States.

Heaney was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th circuit by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, after being nominated by Minnesota U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Heaney lived in Duluth and served in that city, as well as in St. Paul and the 8th circuit's base in St. Louis, Missouri.

Heaney authored or helped write opinions that desegregated schools in Omaha, Neb., Little Rock, Ark. and St. Louis. The voluntary plan he helped craft for St. Louis has been modeled by several other districts.

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"We have lost a very good person. I'm quite saddened by it," said Susan Uchitelle, who was appointed to run the St. Louis Metropolitan Voluntary Intra-district Transfer Program.

The program was voluntary for students, but the suburban school districts around St. Louis had to participate.

"So that African-American students in St. Louis would have the opportunity to choose, and go to one of 16 suburban school districts that had less than a 25 percent minority population," she said.

Latonya Davis
Latonya Davis, a resident of St. Louis, attended suburban schools under a desegregation plan mandated by Judge Gerald Heaney's court. Now she is a teacher.
Photo courtesy Marilyn Zimmerman

Heaney oversaw the desegregation plan for 20 years, often visiting St. Louis. Uchitelle says he always wanted to share dinner with inner city students who took classes in the suburbs.

Heaney also was key in a case involving American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents in a shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

While Heaney twice confirmed Peltier's conviction, he also urged clemency for Peltier to help heal the rift between Pine Ridge tribal members and whites.

Heaney was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, and a champion for women's rights.

Before his appointment to the appeals court, Heaney was a longtime political activist. He grew up in Goodhue County, and spent 20 years practicing law in Duluth.

Along with leading Minnesota Democrats Orville Freeman and Hubert Humphrey, Heaney fought in 1948 to keep the Democratic Party from moving too far left, staying on the side of incumbent President Harry Truman over Henry Wallace.

Heaney helped organize Hubert Humphrey's 1948 U.S. Senate campaign.

Heaney was also a war hero, landing in Normandy on D-Day, 1944, and fighting across Europe during World War II, earning the Silver and Bronze Stars.

In a 2006 interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Heaney explained how his life influenced his decisions from the bench.

"My life experience -- for growing up in a small town, a kind father, serving the Army, representing the labor movement, being involved in politics -- and so finally when you get a hard case, a tough case that people can reasonably disagree on, it comes down to really what you think is best for our country in the long run," Heaney said at the time.

Remembrances of Heaney are pouring in from top Democrats.

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Judge Heaney was one of the most influential legal minds in Minnesota's history.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale called Heaney one of the truly remarkable Minnesotans and Americans in modern history.

"I personally think he should have been on the Supreme Court," said Mondale. "Before he went on the bench he was a leader in DFL politics. He was very close to Hubert [Humphrey], and to Gene McCarthy, John Blatnik -- almost to everybody ... [He was] a wonderful, wonderful human being with a marvelous record."

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who represents Minneesota's 8th Congressional District, said he talked with Heaney just last Friday. Oberstar said Heaney's mind was alert and keen, and his sense of humor was intact -- as was his passion.

Heaney retired from the appeals court in 2006. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Eleanor. Services are pending.