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His death, at a veterans hospital, was confirmed by Langdon Neal, the executor of Mr. Leighton’s estate. He had returned to Massachusetts, his home state, after retiring.
When Mr. Leighton moved to Chicago in the 1940s, he and other African-Americans could not join local bar associations or rent space at most downtown office buildings. But by the end of his six-decade career he was one of the most accomplished lawyers in the city’s history.
That career included stints as a lawyer in private practice, as an assistant state attorney general and as a judge in state and federal courts.
“He was an icon,” said Ruben Castillo, the chief judge for the United States District Court for Northern Illinois. “His legal career is like second to none. He did things that were just unheard-of.”
As a lawyer in 1951, Mr. Leighton filed a lawsuit on behalf of a black family that had been blocked by white residents from moving into an apartment in Cicero, a white suburb of Chicago. Cicero residents responded to the family’s intended move with violence, and Mr. Leighton was indicted on charges of conspiracy to incite a riot. Thurgood Marshall, the future United States Supreme Court justice, represented Mr. Leighton, and the indictment was dismissed.
“The kinds of cases that he was willing to take on, often with no fee involved at all, simply because it was the right thing to do, I think changed the conception that people had at that time of what an African-American lawyer might really be about,” Timothy C. Evans, the chief judge of the Chicago area’s Cook County Circuit Court, said in a telephone interview.
Many of Mr. Leighton’s biggest cases as a lawyer focused on racial justice and segregation.
In Mississippi, he challenged the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from juries and won a new trial for a black client who had been convicted of murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. In Alabama, he helped bring about the demise of an amendment to the state constitution that had been designed to prevent African-Americans from registering to vote. And in Harrisburg, Ill., he filed a lawsuit seeking to desegregate the local school system.
Back in Chicago, in a very different case, Mr. Leighton famously represented the organized crime leader Sam Giancana. In one instance, after Mr. Leighton persuaded a judge to order the F.B.I. to limit its surveillance of his client, an appreciative Mr. Giancana gave him a gold wristwatch, which he wore for many years, Mr. Neal said.
Mr. Leighton was named to an Illinois circuit court bench in 1964; became the first black person to serve as an Illinois district appellate judge in 1969; and, nominated by President Gerald R. Ford, was confirmed for the federal bench for the Northern District of Illinois in 1976.
He retired from the bench in 1987 to return to private practice and continued working as a lawyer until 2011, shortly before his 100th birthday.
“He was a man who loved the law,” said William J. Bauer, 91, a longtime friend and a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in a phone interview. “He loved the judicial system and he loved people.”
In state court, Judge Leighton acquitted two Puerto Rican teenagers who had been accused of assaulting Chicago police officers. He ruled that the officers had used unreasonable force by drawing their weapons while arresting the young men. The decision led some to seek his removal from the bench.
Later, as a federal judge, he ruled that under the First Amendment Chicago officials had to allow a Nazi group to hold a rally at a city park.
He was born George Neves Leitao on Oct. 22, 1912, in New Bedford, Mass.; his surname was Anglicized during childhood. His parents, Antonio Neves Leitao and Anna Silva Garcia, had emigrated from Cape Verde, an archipelago nation about 385 miles off the coast of Senegal, and worked in Massachusetts as itinerant agricultural laborers.
Mr. Leighton earned a bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1940 and enrolled at Harvard Law. He left law school to serve as an Army officer in the Pacific during World War II and rose to captain. He resumed law school after his service and graduated in 1946.
Mr. Leighton lived most recently at the veterans facility in Brockton. He is survived by his daughters, Virginia Reynolds and Barbara Whitfield; five grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His wife, Virginia Quivers Leighton, died in 1992.
In 2012, Chicago’s main criminal courthouse became the Honorable George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building. His old desk is in the courthouse lobby, along with a description of his career.
“The same place that indicted him and prosecuted him
is now named after him,” said Judge Evans, who studied under Mr. Leighton in the 1960s at John Marshall Law School.
At the courthouse naming ceremony in 2012, Mr. Leighton played down his accomplishments. “I practiced law,” he said. “That’s all I did.”