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Duluth judge, World War II hero Gerald Heaney dies

DULUTH - Retired federal judge, longtime DFL party activist and decorated World War II hero Gerald Heaney of Duluth has died at the age of 92. Heaney's son, William, said that his father passed away this morning in Duluth. He said services are pe...

Judge Gerald Heaney
Heaney was an Army officer and participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy during World War II. (2006 file / News Tribune)

DULUTH - Retired federal judge, longtime DFL party activist and decorated World War II hero Gerald Heaney of Duluth has died at the age of 92.

Heaney's son, William, said that his father passed away this morning in Duluth. He said services are pending but are expected to be next week in Duluth.

Heaney retired from the bench in 2006 after a career that involved more than 3,000 decisions, including groundbreaking desegregation rulings.

Heaney grew up during the Depression in the Southeastern Minnesota town of Goodhue. He learned his work ethic from his father, who ran a meat market and farmed on the side.

He attended the then-College of St. Thomas in St. Paul and earned his law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1941. He entered the Army during World War II. As an officer, he participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy. He was decorated with the Silver Star for extraordinary bravery and also earned the Bronze Star.


He spent 20 years in a Duluth private law practice concentrating on labor law, representing the teachers' association and battling to make the Duluth school district the first in Minnesota to adopt the same pay scale for men and women.

As a political figure, Heaney helped form the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party with the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Orville Freeman. In 1966, then-U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy recommended to President Lyndon Johnson that he name Heaney a federal judge.

"(Then-U.S. Sen. and future Vice President) Walter Mondale joined in that recommendation," Heaney said in 2006. "Hubert was then vice president and my best friend; Orville Freeman was secretary of agriculture. If I were going to be turned down with that kind of support, I would have had to have been awfully bad."

As a U.S. Circuit Court judge, he authored or helped write opinions that led to the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Ark.; Omaha, Neb., and St. Louis.

Heaney lived in Duluth and had chambers in federal courthouses in Duluth, St. Paul and St. Louis. He and his wife, Eleanor, were married for 64 years.

A professor at the Duke University School of Law calls Heaney "one of the greatest jurists of the federal courts in the past half-century."

"I want to quit before somebody tells me, 'Jerry, you're over the hill. You don't know what's going on,' " Heaney told the News Tribune in 2006. "I feel that I've had the intellectual capacity and the strength to do my share of the work and to do it as well as I can. I don't want to wear out my welcome."

Heaney said his most important accomplishments were in equal rights cases.


"It has been in the area of human and civil rights," he said in 2006. "Because my feeling and my strong belief has been that the Constitution of the United States gives everybody equal opportunity for a job, education and a home. That's where in my political work and work on the court that I really tried to have the greatest influence."

Legal scholars say the most significant case of his career is the St. Louis schools desegregation case in which he wrote the majority of the opinions reviewing the decisions of a lower court.

Missouri schools were segregated by law until 1972. Then Minnie Liddell, a black mother from St. Louis, went to court seeking better schools for her children.

Heaney and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals first heard the case Liddell v. Board of Education in 1980. Heaney wrote the opinion that integrated the St. Louis schools by allowing black children to transfer to a suburban school.

The court required the state to pay the suburban schools the costs of educating the children and made the state pay the transportation costs.

"After a few years, we had 13,000 young black kids who were getting up every morning and catching a bus to go out to the suburban areas," Heaney said in 2006. "It also worked to the advantage of the city schools, because the city schools continued to get the same tax dollars from property taxes and were able to reduce class size to institute all-day kindergarten and some preschool programs to improve the educational opportunities for those kids who remained behind.

"That to me is the most important thing that I did in 40 years."

Heaney also was involved in decisions that integrated the St. Louis police and fire departments.


The Duluth News Tribune and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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