Judge Leon M. Bazile

Leon M. Bazile (1890–1967)

Leon M. Bazile was a member of the House of Delegates (1935–1941) and judge of the Fifteenth Circuit (1941–1965) most widely known for his rulings in Loving v. Virginia, the interracial marriage case ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. Born in Hanover County, Bazile earned a law degree from the University of Richmond and served in the U.S. Army during World War I (1914–1918). In the General Assembly and then on the bench, Bazile's eccentric and independent personality sometimes rubbed others the wrong way, but he was popular among his white constituents for his defense of white supremacy. In the Loving case Bazile strictly enforced Virginia's interracial marriage ban, finding it a just and moral law. His notorious rulings in the marriage case were the last in a long career. Less well known is his nearly five-decade role as a significant shaper and defender of Virginia's segregation laws. Bazile was involved in virtually every legal race issue during those years—the racial integrity and segregation laws of the 1920s, proposals for repatriation of African Americans in the 1930s, the public school equalization cases in the 1940s, defense of Virginia's Massive Resistance in the 1950s, prosecution of the Danville civil rights demonstrators in 1963, and, finally, his last ruling in the Loving case in 1965. He retired in 1965 and died two years later, just before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his Loving opinion. MORE...

 

Early Years

Leon Maurice Nelson Bazile was born on September 9, 1890, at the Bazile family home, Retirement, in Hanover County. He was the son of Aimé Maurice Bazile and Josephine Fox Bazile. Of French descent, he was a devout Roman Catholic. Bazile was educated in the local public schools, a private secondary school, and the law school of the University of Richmond. He graduated at the head of his class in 1910 but had to wait until his twenty-first birthday to begin practicing law. Bazile worked in private practice until 1916 when he joined the state attorney general's staff. After a long courtship he persuaded Virginia Hamilton Bowcock, a Baptist, to cross religious lines and marry him. They were married in Richmond on January 26, 1918, and had one daughter.

In March 1918, Bazile was drafted into the army and served as a private and corporal in France in the 320th Infantry Division. After his discharge from the army in June 1919 he resumed working in the attorney general's office, rising to the position of assistant attorney general by January 1924. In that role Bazile was called on for advice on the legal defense of Virginia's 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, and he made an unsuccessful defense in federal court of the state's law limiting voting in party primaries to white people. Governor Harry F. Byrd entrusted Bazile with several sensitive legal tasks during his administration from 1926 to 1930.

Regarded as an astute constitutional scholar and skillful litigator, Bazile was a champion of nineteenth-century states' rights doctrines. With each succeeding decade, he became more resentful of the legal and social changes taking place in the twentieth century. Bazile loved opera and classical music and disliked missing Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of performances at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. He also indulged his interest in local history. Bazile carefully compiled gravestone inscriptions from several county cemeteries, did genealogical and local history research, and prepared a short history of Hanover County for publication in 1952 in the magazine Virginia and the Virginia County. He published a critical but well-informed review of a biography of Patrick Henry, who was also a native of Hanover County, in the July 1948 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.

In 1930 Bazile returned to private law practice. The most notable case he handled was the 1939 defense of William E. Dodd, a historian and former ambassador to Germany, in a hit-and-run case involving a critically injured child. In 1935 Bazile won election as a Democrat to represent Hanover and King William counties in the House of Delegates. He easily won re-election in 1937 and 1939 and served in the assembly for six years as a member of the Committees on Roads and Internal Navigation and on Schools and Colleges as well as the relatively less important Committees on Executive Expenditures and on Federal Relations and Resolutions. In Bazile's first term John Powell and Earnest Sevier Cox, Virginia's leading white supremacists, asked him and another delegate to sponsor a resolution asking Congress to pay for voluntary emigration of African Americans to Liberia. The resolution passed the house by voice vote without objection and passed the Senate by a large majority.

Judicial Career

On June 28, 1941, the governor appointed Bazile judge of the Fifteenth Circuit, which included the counties of Caroline, Hanover, King George, Stafford, Spotsylvania, and the city of Fredericksburg. The next session of the General Assembly elected him to the first of three eight-year terms in January 1942. In 1960 the circuit was reduced to encompass only the counties of Caroline and Hanover. What Washington Post columnist Benjamin Muse termed "the eccentricities of an unusual personality" and "air of whimsical independence which has rubbed many persons the wrong way" led the judge into disputes with local officials and unusual criminal punishments such as banishment from the state. One of those conflicts delayed Democratic Party endorsement of Bazile's reelection to the bench in 1950.

In 1948, when the campaign of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for equalization of white and black public schools reached King George County, Bazile became deeply involved. Fearing that a federal court would find that only desegregation would bring equalization, he declared that he would close the schools rather than permit desegregation. Because he had a role in appointing school board members he advised them to drop advanced courses in science and math in the white school to bring its curriculum in line with its black counterpart. The county restored the dropped classes shortly after voters approved a large school bond issue to improve education for African Americans.

Responding later to the Supreme Court's 1954 and 1955 rulings outlawing segregation in public education, in May 1955 Bazile issued an injunction against spending revenue the county had approved in a 1953 referendum to build new schools. The bonds, he ruled, had become void because the funds had been designated for segregated schools, the only legal schools in Virginia then, and the money could not be spent on desegregated schools. In a widely noted twenty-one-page opinion Bazile argued that by removing the segregation clause from the state constitution the Supreme Court had knocked out the entire education article. Virginia therefore was under no obligation to provide public schools. The following year in County School Board of Hanover County v. Samuel W. Shelton the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overruled the judge based on the wording of the referendum, which did not specify racially segregated schools. The influential segregationist organization Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties cited Bazile's opinion in its campaign to block desegregation of the schools.

When the governor closed nine public schools in 1958 to enforce the Massive Resistance laws, the state government turned to Bazile for legal advice. The logic of his 1955 opinion supplemented by a legal memorandum he provided formed the crux of the attorney general's argument for the governor in the case of Harrison v. Day. In January 1959 by a vote of 5 to 2 the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rejected the argument and declared the school closings a violation of the state constitution.

Loving v. Virginia

On January 6, 1959, just prior to the decision on the school closings, Bazile's docket in Caroline County contained the case of a couple charged with violating Virginia's prohibition on interracial marriage, part of the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, which he had handled as an assistant attorney general thirty-five years earlier. The previous year Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a mixed-race woman, had married in the District of Columbia and returned to live in Caroline County. County authorities had arrested and indicted them for the crime of unlawful cohabitation as a married couple. In court the pair entered a plea of guilty, and the judge sentenced them to a one-year jail term, which he suspended on condition of banishment as a couple from the state for twenty-five years. For the time being, the Lovings moved to Washington, D.C.

Bazile's next stand against the campaign for equal rights came in 1963 when he volunteered to serve as judge designate to assist Judge Archibald M. Aiken in trying the hundreds of cases arising from the Danville civil rights demonstrations earlier that year. After suggesting that Aiken transfer many of the cases to distant locations in Virginia, Bazile held one of the principal demonstration leaders in contempt of court and imposed a jail sentence and a $100 fine as punishment. In that same year, the Lovings had taken their cause to the American Civil Liberties Union and moved back to Virginia to reopen their case, which the suspended sentence enabled them to do. Acting to preempt federal court action, Bazile responded on January 22, 1965, with his final ruling on the matter. Finding them guilty of a felony he sentenced them to a year in jail, and then he added the racist dictum that "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Attorneys for the Lovings appealed the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. On March 7, 1966, the court upheld Bazile's interpretation of state law and judicial precedent but remanded the case for resentencing, noting that the penalty called for a one-year term in the state prison, not in the county jail, and that the suspension was improper. The Lovings then appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their lawyers argued that Virginia's prohibition of interracial marriage denied the Lovings the equal protection of the law and the due process of the law the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed them. In its landmark decision on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court, quoting Judge Bazile's racist dictum in full, unanimously declared that Virginia's marriage law created an invidious racial discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Death

Bazile did not live to see the final decision in Loving v. Virginia, which he undoubtedly would have regarded as the culmination of a disastrous, decades-long trend in federal jurisprudence. In November 1965, ill and suffering the effects of surgery, he retired from the bench. Bazile died at his home near Atlee in Hanover County on March 18, 1967, almost three months before the Supreme Court overturned his opinion. He was buried in the family cemetery in Hanover County. In June 1968 his portrait was unveiled in the Hanover County courthouse.

Time Line

  • September 9, 1890 - Leon M. Bazile is born at the family home, Retirement, in Hanover County.
  • 1910 - Leon M. Bazile graduates at the head of his class from the law school at the University of Richmond.
  • January 26, 1918 - Leon M. Bazile and Virginia Hamilton Bowcock are married in Richmond. They will have one daughter.
  • March 1918 - Leon M. Bazile is drafted into the army and serves as a private and corporal in France in the 320th Infantry Division.
  • June 1919 - Leon M. Bazile is discharged from the army after serving as a private and corporal in France in the 320th Infantry Division.
  • January 1924 - Leon M. Bazile is promoted to the position of assistant attorney general.
  • 1930 - After serving in the state attorney general's office, Leon M. Bazile returns to private practice in Hanover County.
  • 1935–1941 - Leon M. Bazile represents Hanover and King William counties in the House of Delegates.
  • June 28, 1941 - The governor appoints Leon M. Bazile judge of the Fifteenth Circuit. He will serve until his retirement in 1965.
  • May 1955 - Judge Leon M. Bazile issues an injunction designed to slow or prevent public school desegregation in Virginia.
  • January 1959 - After Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes public schools in resistance to desegregation, state and federal courts strike down Virginia's Massive Resistance policies.
  • January 6, 1959 - Judge Leon Bazile accepts Mildred and Richard Loving's guilty pleas and agrees to suspend their one-year jail sentences on the condition that they leave the state of Virginia and promise not to return as a couple for twenty-five years.
  • June 6, 1963 - Two hundred people demonstrate at the Danville Municipal Building. Judge Archibald M. Aiken Jr. indicts three demonstration leaders for "conspiring to incite the colored population of the State to acts of violence and war against the white population," an 1859 statute enacted after John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and reenacted in 1960.
  • June 17, 1963 - Trials begin for those arrested in the Danville civil rights demonstrations. The U.S. Justice Department issues a brief that strongly criticizes Judge Archibald M. Aiken Jr.'s courtroom procedures.
  • January 22, 1965 - Leon M. Bazile, a judge for the circuit court of Caroline County, refuses a motion on behalf of Richard and Mildred Loving to vacate their 1959 conviction for violating the state law that forbids interracial marriage.
  • November 1965 - Judge Leon M. Bazile retires from the bench of the Fifteenth Circuit.
  • March 7, 1966 - In Loving v. Virginia, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upholds the state's antimiscegenation laws. The Court also sets aside the original conviction of Richard and Mildred Loving, finding that a sentence requiring the defendants to leave the state is "unreasonable."
  • March 18, 1967 - Leon M. Bazile dies at his home near Atlee, in Hanover County.
  • June 12, 1967 - In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules that Virginia's antimiscegenation statutes violate the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment. The decision effectively overturns the bans on interracial marriage in sixteen states.
  • June 1968 - A portrait of Leon M. Bazile is unveiled at the Hanover County courthouse.

References

Further Reading
Lane, John Edward III. "Leon Maurice Bazile." In Legal Education in Virginia, 1779–1979, A Biographical Approach. Edited by W. Hamilton Bryson, 83–86. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Hershman, J. H., Jr., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Leon M. Bazile (1890–1967). (2018, July 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Bazile_Leon_M_1890-1967.

  • MLA Citation:

    Hershman, James H., Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Leon M. Bazile (1890–1967)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Jul. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 23, 2018 | Last modified: July 12, 2018


Contributed by James H. Hershman Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James H. Hershman Jr. is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.