Armistead M. Dobie

Armistead M. Dobie (1881–1962)

Armistead M. Dobie served as the second dean of the University of Virginia School of Law (1932–1939), a judge of the Western District of Virginia (1939), and a judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (1939–1956). Born in Norfolk, he was educated at the University of Virginia and briefly practiced law in Saint Louis, Missouri, before joining the faculty of his alma mater. During World War I (1914–1918), he served twice in France. After returning to the University of Virginia, he introduced the case method of instruction and authored the Handbook of Federal Jurisdiction and Procedure (1928). A talented speaker with a shrill voice, Dobie was a popular presence at the university, as a witty lecturer and a speaker at football pep rallies. His time on the federal bench was marked by a ruling in favor of true equality between black and white schools in Corbin et al. v. County School Board of Pulaski County, Virginia, et al. (1949). In 1952, he was one of three judges that upheld racial segregation in public education in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. A long battle with depression forced Dobie's retirement in 1956; he died in Charlottesville in 1962. MORE...

 

Early Years

Armistead Mason Dobie was born on April 15, 1881, in Norfolk and was the son of Margaret Kearns Cooke Dobie and Richard Augustus Dobie, a Confederate veteran, merchant, and superintendent of Norfolk schools from 1896 to 1922. Dobie entered the University of Virginia in 1898. As an undergraduate he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa and editor of the student literary publication, the University of Virginia Magazine. He received a BA in 1901, an MA in 1902, and an LLB in 1904. Dobie practiced law for three years in Saint Louis, Missouri, and then in 1907 returned to the University of Virginia as a member of the law faculty. He was promoted to full professor in 1909.

When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, Dobie, then age thirty-six, began officer training school. Commissioned a captain in the reserves in August 1917, he served for several months as an aide to the commanding general of Camp Lee, Virginia. Dobie served two stints in France, from September 1917 to February 1918 and again from May 1918 to May 1919 as the chief of the Intelligence Publication Section at the headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force and as assistant chief of staff at the 80th Division's headquarters in Chaumont. He received the Officier d'Académie with Palms and was discharged as a major on June 6, 1919.

At the University of Virginia

Returning to Charlottesville, Dobie displayed a talent for administration as executive director of the university's Centennial Endowment Fund from 1920 to 1921. He then took a one-year leave of absence and earned a doctorate of juridical science (SJD) under Felix Frankfurter at Harvard University. When Dobie rejoined the University of Virginia's law faculty in 1922, he introduced the case method of instruction that he had observed at Harvard, an innovation that faculty colleagues and students resisted but that many other laws schools had already embraced. A prodigious scholar, he published widely in criminal law, legal history, and federal jurisdiction and procedure. Dobie's best-known work, Handbook of Federal Jurisdiction and Procedure (1928), was a widely employed text and often reprinted. It was a ready reference for the committee, on which he sat from 1935 to 1938, that in the latter year completed the new Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dobie also served as an adviser to the Conflict of Laws Section of the American Law Institute and in 1935 was a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general.

Appointed dean of the law school in 1932, Dobie continued to write and to teach. After his 1939 appointment to the federal bench, he continued to lecture, including a return to Charlottesville to give the 1951 William H. White Lectures, which detailed the careers of Virginia's federal district judges before the American Civil War (1861–1865). Although possessed of a rather shrill voice, Dobie was a preternaturally talented speaker, even something of a showman. His so-called Dobie lecture, an Easter-week gathering for which students dressed up and brought dates, was legendary, and he often spoke at football pep rallies. Wit, wordplay, and trademark colloquialisms distinguished every Dobie talk. For most of his life Dobie drew energy from other people and enjoyed sharing his many passions with friends. He was an epicure, an oenophile (a connoisseur of wine), a fan of literature and classical music, an avid follower of baseball and the stock market, and a keen player of bridge and bettor on horses.

Federal Judge

In May 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with whom Dobie had played poker during a presidential visit to Charlottesville, appointed Dobie federal judge of the Western District of Virginia after failing to secure confirmation of an appointee whom the two senators from Virginia had refused to support. Roosevelt judiciously allowed Senators Harry F. Byrd Sr. and Carter Glass to claim that they had advised Dobie's selection. The following December, Roosevelt appointed Dobie to a vacant seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where for sixteen years he served with John J. Parker and Morris A. Soper. Dobie heard more than 1,400 cases and wrote 458 opinions. He dissented only six times; in three of those instances the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appeals court rulings, and on a fourth occasion the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. Dobie made only modest attempts to sublimate his rollicking personality on the bench. Counsel might as well expect from him a quip as a query.

The most notable legal development during Dobie's judicial tenure was the undermining of the separate-but-equal doctrine of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that sanctioned state-enforced racial segregation. When African American plaintiffs under the leadership of Percy C. Corbin sued the Pulaski County school board, contending that inferior facilities and the longer distances they had to travel to school made their educational opportunities unequal to those of the county's white students, Dobie and his colleagues agreed. In concluding his opinion in Corbin et al. v. County School Board of Pulaski County, Virginia, et al. (1949), Dobie wrote, "Whenever the forbidden racial discrimination rears its head, a solemn duty to strike it down is clearly imposed upon the courts." He believed that the separate-but-equal doctrine required real equality, and his opinion required improvements of schools for the county's African American students, not desegregation of the school system. Dobie followed precedent and believed that the states should be allowed to require racial segregation.

In 1952 Dobie presided over the three-judge district court that heard the initial phase of Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County,which directly challenged racial segregation. Joined by more demure but equally tradition-bound federal district judges Albert V. Bryan and Charles S. Hutcheson, Dobie conducted the Richmond proceeding in his usual freewheeling way. Few were surprised that Bryan's opinion for the court unanimously affirmed the legality of racially separate schools. When that ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was combined with others as part of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Court in 1954 overruled Bryan's opinion and declared that separate was inherently unequal and that mandatory racial segregation in public education was therefore a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Later Years

A long, difficult, and publicly unacknowledged battle with depression led Dobie to retire from the bench on February 1, 1956. Although he had hoped to continue working some after he retired, he never returned to court, and he could no longer maintain his reputation as a host and raconteur. Dobie remained a bachelor until age seventy-seven, when he married his longtime friend Rita Elizabeth McKenney in Charlottesville on July 18, 1958. Dobie died in a Charlottesville hospital on August 7, 1962, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery. In 1970 the University of Virginia established an endowed professorship in law in his name.

Major Work

  • Handbook of Federal Jurisdiction and Procedure (1928)

Time Line

  • April 15, 1881 - Armistead M. Dobie is born in Norfolk.
  • 1898 - Armistead M. Dobie matriculates at the University of Virginia.
  • 1901 - Armistead M. Dobie receives a BA from the University of Virginia.
  • 1902 - Armistead M. Dobie receives an MA from the University of Virginia.
  • 1904 - Armistead M. Dobie receives an LLB from the University of Virginia.
  • 1904–1907 - Armistead M. Dobie practices law in Saint Louis, Missouri.
  • 1907 - Armistead M. Dobie joins the University of Virginia faculty as a law professor.
  • 1909 - Armistead M. Dobie is promoted to full professor at the University of Virginia.
  • Spring 1917 - Armistead M. Dobie begins officer training school.
  • September 1917–February 1918 - Armistead M. Dobie serves in France during World War I.
  • May 1918–May 1919 - Armistead M. Dobie serves in France as the chief of the Intelligence Publication Section at the headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force and as assistant chief of staff at the 80th Division's headquarters in Chaumont.
  • June 6, 1919 - Armistead M. Dobie is discharged as a major from the reserves.
  • August 1919 - Armistead M. Dobie is commissioned a captain in the reserves at Camp Lee.
  • 1920–1921 - Armistead M. Dobie serves as executive director of the University of Virginia's Centennial Endowment Fund.
  • 1921–1922 - Armistead M. Dobie earns a doctorate of juridical science at Harvard University.
  • 1932 - Armistead M. Dobie is appointed the second dean of the University of Virginia School of Law.
  • 1935–1938 - Armistead M. Dobie sites on a committee that completes the new Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
  • 1935 - Armistead M. Dobie serves as a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general.
  • May 1939 - President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints Armistead M. Dobie federal judge of the Western District of Virginia.
  • December 1939 - President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints Armistead M. Dobie to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • 1951 - Armistead M. Dobie delivers the William H. White Lectures at the University of Virginia, detailing the careers of Virginia's federal district judges before the Civil War.
  • February 1, 1956 - Armistead M. Dobie retires from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • July 18, 1958 - Armistead M. Dobie and Rita Elizabeth McKenny marry in Charlottesville.
  • August 7, 1962 - Armistead M. Dobie dies in a Charlottesville hospital. He is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
  • 1970 - The University of Virginia establishes an endowed professorship of law in the name of Armistead M. Dobie.

References

Further Reading
Bryson, W. Hamilton, ed. Legal Education in Virginia, 1779–1979: A Biographical Approach. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Sasser, J., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Armistead M. Dobie (1881–1962). (2016, April 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Dobie_Armistead_M_1881-1962.

  • MLA Citation:

    Sasser, Jackson and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Armistead M. Dobie (1881–1962)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Apr. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 21, 2016 | Last modified: April 21, 2016


Contributed by Jackson Sasser and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography