Claude Feemster Clayton was a circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and previously a district judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.
Born on August 4, 1909, in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Claude and Mary Annis Feemster Clayton, Clayton studied two years at the University of Mississippi before entering its School of Law. Unsure of funding for his final term, Clayton passed the bar exam a semester before graduation. According to a classmate who later served on the State Board of Bar Examiners, Clayton not only scored the highest grade at the time, but surpassed all other recorded scores.
In 1930 Clayton began a law practice in Tupelo, and two years later joined the Mississippi National Guard, rising to second lieutenant of field artillery. He was active in politics, serving as county chair of the Roosevelt Nominators in 1936 and district chair of the Young Democrats from 1936 to 1938. In 1935 Clayton was elected Lee County prosecutor, and in 1938 voters elected him judge of the First Circuit Court District of Mississippi.
Clayton resigned his judgeship in 1940 to serve in the US Army. He attended the British Staff College and in 1944 joined the staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. After transferring to the XIII Corps artillery, Clayton served as an intelligence officer in Holland and Germany until his release from active duty in 1945. During World War II he rose in rank from major to lieutenant colonel, and received a Bronze Star.
After World War II Clayton returned to private practice in Tupelo and resumed his membership in the Mississippi National Guard, receiving a promotion to brigadier general in 1958. Prior to his federal judicial appointment, Clayton served as president of the Lee County Bar Association and actively supported his former commanding officer, Eisenhower, for president in 1952 and 1956.
On February 24, 1958, President Eisenhower nominated Clayton to a seat vacated by United States Judge Allen Cox. Upon taking the bench, Clayton sought to clear the docket, telling a colleague that he would “try to run the kind of court that I would like to practice in.” He required punctuality and decorum in his court and in return treated everyone with fairness. As a district judge, Clayton’s initial dilatory handling of civil rights litigation was similar to that of other conservative white southerners on the federal bench.
In 1962, when Pres. John F. Kennedy federalized the Mississippi National Guard to stop rioting over integration at the University of Mississippi, Clayton commanded the 31st Infantry Division called to restore order. Since arrested rioters would likely come before him as a US judge, Clayton alerted officials to a potential conflict of interest and was released from military duty. Judge Clayton eventually heard the cases of several rioters and ordered a psychiatric examination for one of the riot’s instigators.
After reversals in two voting rights cases, Clayton built a record as a conservative but fair-minded and respectful jurist who followed higher court rulings. Clayton labored strenuously as a district judge: while his peers averaged fewer than ninety days on the bench annually, in most years Clayton spent over one hundred and fifty. His docket was heavy but remained current, with little backlog. Higher courts reversed his decisions in only five civil cases and three criminal cases. Of Clayton’s judicial legacy, Fifth Circuit Judge Grady Jolly later stated that “Claude Clayton was a great federal judge when Mississippi needed one.”
On October 17, 1967, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Clayton to a new seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, as authorized by 80 Stat. 75. The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee of the Federal Judiciary held that he was “exceptionally well qualified” for the appointment. The Senate confirmed the appointment on October 26, making Clayton the first graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law appointed to the Fifth Circuit.
Eight months after his induction to the Fifth Circuit, Clayton suffered a massive stroke from which he never fully recovered. He died a year later on July 4, 1969, in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Washington, DC, at age 59. Clayton is buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Tupelo, Mississippi, and his portraits hang at federal courthouses in Aberdeen and Jackson.
- Leigh McWhite, “‘Judge, General, Your Honor, Sir . . .’: A Selection of Archival Documents from the Papers of Judge Claude F. Clayton of the US District Court of Northern Mississippi and the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit,” Mississippi Law Journal 83, no. 6 (2014)
- David M. Hargrove, Mississippi’s Federal Courts: A History (2019)
- Claude F. Clayton Collection, 1934–1969, University of Mississippi, J. D. Williams Library.