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“None of the politicians really understand what a high price it is to appoint bad judges...”

-- Nicholas Katzenbach*
Oct. 18, 1979

Links Related to Judges Ellis and Wright
Frank Burton Ellis, the Bureaucrat

His Inept Performance Led to a Judicial Appointment

Frank Burton Ellis did not set about to become a judge, but once seated on the bench he used his judicial powers to impose his conservative views on civil rights issues with the same determination he brought to bear on other phases of his career.

Civil Defense and Cold War Hysteria

Civil defense was very much on the minds of the new administration when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States on January 20, 1961.1  One of the first things President Kennedy did when he assumed office was to appoint New Orleans attorney Frank B. Ellis as the new Director of the Office of Civil Defense and Mobilization (OCDM).2  Ellis was appointed on January 23, 1961 and confirmed on March 7, 1961.3,4

The OCDM seemed to be of vital importance to national security in light of existing world events: Castro forces had entered Havana and overthrown the Batista regime; the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba; France exploded its first nuclear device; an American U-2 plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, causing cancellation of a Summit Conference; and in April 1961, the U.S. sponsored the unsuccessful invasion of 1,200 anti-Castro Cuban exiles at Cuba's Bay of Pigs.4-6

Effectiveness of the OCDM had been on the wane, and shortly after he was installed into office Ellis announced that things would now be different, stating: "Heretofore, there has been a lack of federal leadership and example — the very qualities we must now exhibit if we are to convince a skeptical Congress and a disinterested public."7

He believed that the OCDM was "completely inadequate," and he expected a bigger budget and his position elevated to the status of cabinet rank.2  In April 1961, without presidential consultation, Ellis publically proposed that $300 million should be budgeted for OCDM, instead of the "paltry" $104 million that the previous Eisenhower Administration had provided. He argued that additional money was needed to build more bomb shelters, improve existing shelters, stockpile medicines and mobile hospitals, and expand OCDM's educational programs.8

At first, the request was turned down by the White House pending further analysis. Nevertheless, Ellis "decided to go ahead with his budget plans, with or without Administration approval."7 Accustomed to imposing his will on others, Ellis had a knack for rankling people in powerful positions. His idea to insert a clause into every FHA loan contract to require bomb shelters was "shunted aside."7

Dee Garrison, in his book Bracing for Armageddon, believed that Kennedy decided to scrap the OCDM because of the embarrassment caused by his appointment of Ellis as head of that agency. Ellis, a former deacon of the Presbyterian Church,9 maintained that the "revival for survival" that he launched on behalf of civil defense was "the Christian thing to do, the Godlike thing."10  Theodore Sorenson, in his 1965 biography of John F. Kennedy, recounted that Ellis intended to travel to the Vatican in hopes of obtaining the endorsement of the Pope for his idea "to install fallout shelters in every Church-owned basement."3

The exasperated President instructed Ellis not to go to Rome.3  Kennedy then transferred major responsibility for U.S. civil defense to a new Office of Civil Defense (OCD) within the Department of Defense3  and appointed attorney Steuart L. Pittman to head that office.10  The OCDM was recast as the Office of Emergency Planning, leaving Ellis with fewer responsibilities, although he still retained authority for strategic stockpiling, minor civil defense preparations, and planning for the continuity of local and state governments and for natural disaster relief programs.11,12  Following this reorganization, which Ellis reluctantly accepted,11,13  the President asked Congress to add about $208 million to the $104 million civil defense budget already requested in 1961.11

Ellis's overzealous advocacy of the fallout shelter program had clearly irritated the President, but it was not the only issue in which Ellis had overstepped his bounds. President Kennedy was now faced with the problem of finding alternative employment for Ellis that would avoid presidential embarrassment and not impugn Ellis' loyalty. Eventually, Kennedy would dispose of this problem by nominating Ellis to the Federal District Court in New Orleans,14  where powerful forces had been clamoring for the replacement of Judge J. Skelly Wright, who became embattled over his campaign to desegregate Louisiana schools. Kennedy created a vacancy on that court by nominating Judge Wright to the Appellate Court in D.C.

The transfer of civil defense authority to the Department of Defense by Kennedy was important in light of the events which were to follow: East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to halt the flood of refugees between East and West Berlin as part of the Cold War; the U.S.S.R. detonated a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb; the U.S. continued to deploy thousands of military advisers in South Vietnam; and the U.S.S.R. and Cuba undertook measures that led to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.5,6  Moreover, 1960 had witnessed establishment of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which was formally constituted in 1961. That organization of oil-producing states was powerful, among other things, because of its ability to control prices and regulate oil production.15

As a member of the Kennedy Administration's National Security Council,9  Ellis was in position to be informed of confidential matters of national consequence. An incident that caused significant embarrassment and deep concern occurred when his knowledge of a highly confidential matter was disclosed on NBC's The Today Show and reported by the New York Times on the following day, October 27, 1961.

Ellis revealed that President Kennedy had a list of men who would assume administrative power should an atomic attack or other calamity kill senior government officials. Although Ellis did not disclose the names of these men, he elaborated by saying that the designees would periodically undertake a complete study of their operation.16  The men who constituted this shadow government were known as "The Eisenhower Ten."16

Later, Frederick G. Dutton, Presidential Assistant to President Kennedy, corresponded with National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy regarding the existence of classified letters from President Eisenhower to these ten, mainly private citizens, giving them authority over various aspects of the economy and government in the event of a declaration of a national emergency.16-18

Dutton, Bundy, Ellis and three others were "Supporting Players" to the "Cast" of The Eisenhower Ten.3  Inasmuch as Eisenhower's extraordinary letters had no expiration dates, there was widespread consternation, even trepidation, at the thought that there were private citizens who had the authority to take over the government in case of war.16  The release of such highly classified information to the public did not help Ellis.

He Earned His Position

By the time Ellis came to Washington in 1961 at age 54, he had established a solid reputation for getting things done. From the time of his youth he had been athletic, aggressive and ambitious — traits that served him well but which ultimately led to conflicts with his superiors. The imposing Ellis, who stood six-feet, one-inch tall,19 had been educated at the former Gulf Coast Military Academy, the University of Virginia (where he was a member of the boxing team), and Louisiana State University (where he was captain of the football team). He received his LL.B. degree from LSU Law School in 1929 and was admitted to the Louisiana bar the following year, joining his father's law firm in Covington, Louisiana.9

Ellis was always deeply involved in political and civic affairs and served a term in the State Senate (1940-1944), where he became president pro tem. Following an unsuccessful campaign in 1944 for Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, he moved to New Orleans to practice law and further his political ambitions in the Democratic Party.

Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long, to whom Ellis was close, appointed him as bond attorney for the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway.9  His passion and stewardship over this project were largely responsible for the successful completion of the 24-mile bridge.19  In 1956, the initial two-lane Causeway was opened at a cost of $30.7 million, and in 1969 a second, parallel two-lane span opened at a cost of $26 million.20  The project had an enormous impact on the future of the Greater New Orleans area.21  Ellis was also a member of Interstate Oil Compact Commission and was attorney for the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission, which brought the important interstate highways I-10 and I-12 to Louisiana.9

As Vice-Chairman of the New Orleans Aviation Board, Ellis was influential in helping to build the $30 million Moisant International Airport.9, 22  This was the first post-war international airport, and it opened for service in 1946 as the then largest commercial airport in the United States.23  It has since undergone two name changes: New Orleans International Airport in December, 196223  and Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in August, 2001, in honor of the famed native-born jazz musician, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth.24-26

Ellis was also involved in many other charitable fund-raising drives and had founded and directed the New Orleans Opera Foundation, saving that institution from financial distress.9

In 1948, Ellis was active in the presidential re-election campaign of Harry Truman,3,11  and he later directed the successful Democratic presidential campaigns that delivered Louisiana's electoral votes to Adlai Stevenson in 1952 (who nevertheless lost the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower)27  and to John F. Kennedy in 1960 (who defeated Richard Nixon).3,28  As a member of Louisiana's 10-member Electoral College, Ellis, along with Judge Edmund M. Reggie and four other electors pledged to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket, resisted persistent political efforts to alter his vote.29  His loyalty was rewarded with the appointment in Kennedy's administration.

A Fall from Grace

The series of missteps that proved fatal to Ellis' success in Washington, led to his appointment to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Ellis was not pleased with this demotion. He had little choice but to resign his post and accept the judicial appointment on the Fifth Circuit as arranged for him by Kennedy.3

Ellis' progress from nomination to the donning of his judicial robe was swift. His reputation as a ‘good old boy' had preceded him to the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. Louisiana Senator Russell B. Long proudly presented Ellis to his colleagues and gave him an enthusiastic endorsement. Favorable letters and telegrams from members of the New Orleans and Louisiana bar associations poured into the subcommittee before the hearing began.14  On April 16, 1962, Ellis was sworn-in for the federal judgeship, replacing his longtime friend J. Skelly Wright, with whom he disagreed in matters concerning civil rights and racial desegregation.

Following his troubled tenure in Washington, it is not surprising that a way was found to remove Ellis from the intricate inner workings of national government. What Ellis considered a demotion, others would consider a prize. After all, he was handed a federal judgeship with a salary and health benefits for life, plus the advantage of working in his wife's home town where he had a lucrative law practice, financial and political standing in the community, and the social status afforded by a home on upper St. Charles Avenue, where he lived with his wife and their three children.14

Nevertheless, in this new position Ellis once again proved to be at the center of great controversy. His deeply-rooted set of beliefs and mores, coupled with an inclination to impose his values on others, played a major role in his judicial decisions, particularly in cases relating to civil rights and school desegregation, where his rulings temporarily set back the historical progress that had been made in securing the constitutional rights of all men.30,31

Carl Bernofsky
Shreveport, Louisiana
July 15, 2009

*Nicholas Katzenbach served as Deputy Attorney General under Robert Kennedy.  The boxed quote is from an interview cited by Jack Bass in his book, Unlikely Heroes, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1981, p. 171.

The author is grateful to Shirley Bernofsky for her research into the subject of Judge Frank B. Ellis' tenure in the Kennedy Administration.  Please address corrections to the author at tulanelink@aol.com.

  1. "John F. Kennedy", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy. Accessed 19 Dec 2008.

  2. "What Is Civil Defense? Kennedy Administration through the George W. Bush Administration," Biot Report #244, 2 Aug 2005. Second part of a two-part series on the history of civil defense. Suburban Emergency Management Project. http://www.semp.us/publications/biot_reader.php?BiotID=244. Accessed 18 Dec 2008.

  3. "The Eisenhower Ten: Main Cast and Supporting Players," CONELRAD: Atomic Secrets, http://www.conelrad.com/atomicsecrets/secrets.php?secrets=e15. Accessed 28 Nov 2008. See also: John F. Kennedy, "Statement by the President Concerning the Appointment of Frank B. Ellis, as Director, Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization," January 23, 1961, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=8477. Accessed 18 Dec 2008.

  4. Robert A. Gessert, Nehemiah Jordan, and John E. Tashjean, "Federal Civil Defense Organization: The Rationale of Its Development," Study S-184. Institute for Defense Analyses, Economic and Political Studies Division, Jan 1965, p. 72. http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/edu/docs/HistoricalInterest/Gessert,%20Jordan%20and%20Tashjean%20-%20January%201965%20-%20Federal%20Civil%20.pdf. Accessed 19 Dec 2008.

  5. "1961 World Events," Infoplease: All the Knowledge You Need Website. http://www.infoplease.com/year/1961.html. Accessed 5 Jan 2009.

  6. "Cuban Missile Crisis: Timeline," Oracle Thinkquest Education Foundation, http://library.thinkquest.org/11046/days/timeline.html. Accessed 2 Jul 2009.

  7. "Louisiana Haymaker," Time Magazine, 14 Apr 1961. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,872246-2,00.html. Accessed 21 Nov 2008."

  8. "Nuclear Families: The Home Shelter Movement in California, 1950-1969," [Exhibition Audio], CONELRAD, http://www.conelrad.com/nuclearfamilies/. Accessed 12 Jul 2009.

  9. "Judge Ellis Dies; Burial Set at Amite," The Morning Advocate, Baton Rouge, La., Nov 5, 1969. Source: State Library of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. See also: "Index to Politicians: Ellis," Political Graveyard, http://political graveyard.com/bio/ellis.html. Accessed 28 Nov 2008.

  10. Dee Garrison, "Bracing for Armageddon: Why Civil Defense Never Worked," Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 111. http://books.google.com/books?id=6hJciR5tBpQC. Accessed 21 Nov 2008.

  11. "All Out Against Fallout," Time Magazine in Parnership with CNN, Aug 4, 1961, http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,895479,00.html. Accessed 28 Nov 2008.

  12. Frank Arthur Blazich, Jr., "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow: The North Carolina Civil Defense Agency and Fallout Shelters, 1961-1963." A thesis submitted to the Graduate Faculty of North Carolina State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina , 2008, p. 24. http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/theses/available/etd-10282008-171921/unrestricted/etd.pdf. Accessed 19 Dec 2008.

  13. Executive Order 10952, August 9, 1961 (26 Federal Register 5918: 50 USC App. 2271), transferred major civil defense operating functions from the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization to the Department of Defense. In consequence, Public Law 87 - 296, approved on September 22, 1961 (75 Stat. 630), changed the name to Office of Emergency Planning. "Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS)," Vol. IX: Foreign Economic Policy: Section 17, 1961-1963.

  14. Liva Baker, "The Second Battle of New Orleans: The Hundred-Year Struggle to Integrate the Schools," Harper Collins, New York, 1996, pp. 469-470. See also: Jack Bass, "Unlikely Heroes," Simon and Schuster, New York, 1981, pp. 170-171.

  15. "Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries," Infoplease: All the Knowledge You Need Website. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0836844.html. Accessed 5 Jan 2009.

  16. "This Letter Will Constitute Your Authority: The Eisenhower Ten," Atomic Secrets, Conelrad. http://www.conelrad.com/atomicsecrets/secrets.php?secrets=05. Accessed 28 Dec 2008.

  17. "The Eisenhower Ten: Frederick G. Dutton Memorandum," Atomic Secrets, Conelrad. http://www.conelrad.com/atomicsecrets/secrets.php?secrets=e17. Accessed 28 Dec 2008.

  18. "Eisenhower Ten," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisenhower_Ten. Accessed 28 Dec 2008.

  19. "Lawyer for Defense: Frank Burton Ellis," The New York Times, 24 Jan 1961.

  20. "Lake Ponchartrain Causeway," Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Pontchartrain_Causeway, Accessed 23 Nov 2008.

  21. Carl Bernofsky, "Frank Burton Ellis, the Politician," Tulanelink, 2009, http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/frankellispolitician_09a.htm. Accessed 16 Jan 2009.

  22. "Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport," Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Armstrong_New_Orleans_International_Airport . Accessed 3 Jan 2009.

  23. City Business Staff Report, New Orleans CityBusiness (LA) 26 May 2006.

  24. "John Moisant," U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Dictionary/J_MOISANT/DI147.htm. Accessed 23 Nov 2008.

  25. "History," Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, http://www.flymsy.com/history.htm. Accessed 23 Nov 2008.

  26. Richard A. Webster, "Recovering N.O. Tourism Marks Post-Katrina Rebound," New Orleans CityBusiness (LA) 24 Aug 2006.

  27. "1952 Presidential General Election Results - Louisiana," USA Election Polls, http://www.uselectionatlas.org/.../. Accessed 21 Dec 2008.

  28. "1960 Presidential General Election Results - Louisiana," USA Election Polls, http://www.uselectionatlas.org/.../. Accessed 21 Dec 2008.

  29. "Six Electors Pledge Votes for Kennedy,", The Shreveport Times, (circa Nov 1960). Source: Judge Edmund M. Reggie Family Archives. http://www.reggiefamilyarchives.com/188-Six-Electors-Pledge-Votes-for-Kennedy.html. Accessed 4 Jan 2009.

  30. Carl Bernofsky, "Judge Frank Burton Ellis: A Brief Biography and Selective Genealogy," Tulanelink, 2008, http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/judgefrankellis_08a.htm. Accessed 16 Jan 2009.

  31. Carl Bernofsky, "Tulane: A Tradition of Discrimination," Tulanelink, 2001, http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/racist_legacy_01a.htm. Accessed 16 Jan 2009.

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