Charles A. O’Niell
Charles A. O'Niell served as the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1922 to 1949.
Charles Austin O’Niell was the twelfth chief justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, serving in that capacity from December 30, 1922, to September 7, 1949. He presided over the impeachment trial of Gov. Huey P. Long in 1929, and he was allied with the anti-Long faction, which led to Long’s unsuccessful efforts to remove O’Niell from office. Later, Gov. Earl K. Long, Huey’s brother, accomplished the task by sponsoring legislation to establish a mandatory retirement age for judges. Thus O’Niell was forced to retire in 1949, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of eighty. By then, he had served longer on the Louisiana Supreme Court than had any previous member—the record would be broken by his successor, John B. Fournet—and had secured the record for service as chief justice with twenty-six years and nine months in that position.
The combination of judicial ability and length of service established O’Niell as a significant figure in the history of Louisiana’s Supreme Court. John Wigmore, dean of Northwestern University Law School, ranked O’Niell as one of the best opinion writers among all state court judges in the nation; some of O’Niell’s opinions and dissents were cited frequently and became the legal standard. In 1930 his supporters urged consideration of that O’Niell be considered for an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.
O’Niell was born in Franklin, Louisiana, on September 7, 1869, the son of John A. O’Niell, an Irish immigrant and a colonel in the Confederate army, and Isabella Burnham, a British immigrant from London. He was educated in the public schools of Franklin, at Tulane High School in New Orleans, and at Christian Brothers College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1890. After graduation, he read law in Murphy Foster’s law office and earned a law degree from Tulane University in 1893, which was followed by admission to the Louisiana bar on May 19 of that same year.
O’Niell returned to Franklin to practice law from 1893 to 1908, when he was elected judge of the District Court of St. Mary Parish. In November 1912, O’Niell was elected associate justice from the Supreme Court Fourth District, winning over the incumbent Chief Justice Breaux and four other candidates. He was sworn in as associate justice on April 16, 1914, and eight years later, in 1922, O’Niell became chief justice by reason of seniority.
Endowed with an Irish wit, O’Niell had an engaging personality. One writer commented that “‘the Chief’ loved good company, good arguments, good whiskey, and almost any kind of fishing.” His celebrated accomplishments included three honorary doctor of laws degrees from Christian Brothers College, Loyola University, and Tulane University. Upon his retirement, the Louisiana Bar Association presented him with an automobile.
O’Niell married Bettie Singleton Gordy on March 24, 1894, and they had nine children. When he was working in New Orleans, he maintained an apartment in the Monteleone Hotel, just three blocks away from the Supreme Court. His health declined after his retirement, and he died in his hotel room on March 9, 1951. Funeral services were held at the O’Niell home in Franklin, and he was interred in Franklin Cemetery.