ABINGDON, Va. - H. Emory Widener Jr., who until recently was the nation's longest-serving federal appeals judge with 35 years on the bench, has died. He was 83.
Judge Widener died Wednesday at his home in southwest Virginia, Tom Schrinel, deputy circuit executive for the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, said yesterday.
Judge Widener, appointed to the Richmond-based appeals court by President Nixon in 1972, was the longest-serving federal appeals court judge until July, when he took senior status, a form of semiretirement for judges 65 and older.
Widely considered the nation's most conservative appeals court, the Fourth Circuit covers cases from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina. It has handled some of the country's biggest terrorism cases, including that of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Counting judges on senior status, there are five vacancies among the 15 slots in the Fourth Circuit, the most of any federal appeals court.
Among Judge Widener's rulings was one he wrote in 1994 backing a Hispanic student's challenge of a scholarship program for blacks only at the University of Maryland. Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Widener said the school had failed to prove its scholarship program could effectively remedy past discrimination against blacks.
"Mere knowledge of historical fact [past discrimination] is not the kind of present effect that can justify a race-exclusive remedy," Judge Widener wrote.
The US Supreme Court, without comment, let the appeals court ruling stand in 1995.
Retired Judge Charles H. Smith Jr. remembered Judge Widener as a "lawyer's lawyer and an astute student of the law."
"I was always shaking in my boots when I tried cases against him," Smith said.
The longest serving federal appeals court judge in history, counting time spent on senior status, was Albert B. Maris, who died in 1989 after more than 50 years on the bench, according to the Federal Judicial Center Web site.
Born in Abingdon in 1923, Judge Widener served in the US Navy from 1944 to 1949 and graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1953.