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Federal Judge Scott O. Wright Dies At 93

Courtesy photo - Storycorps

This story was updated on Tuesday to add remarks by U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs. 

Scott Wright, a federal judge in Kansas City for 35 years, died today. He was 93.

Wright was nominated to the federal bench in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. He was chief judge from 1985 to 1990 and took senior status in 1991, but continued to handle a full caseload until ill health forced him to step down a couple of years ago.

Wright oversaw many high-profile cases, including the resolution of lawsuits filed after the 1981 Hyatt Regency sky-walk collapse that left 114 people dead.

“We had a blind draw in the federal court system, and I happened to draw the first case," Wright said in an interview with NPR's Storycorps project in 2006. "So I got all the rest of them that were filed in that case. It was a really massive case. We got through it and had it wrapped up within a little over a year.”

Wright was known as a plain-speaking, tell-it-like-it-is judge willing to take controversial stands. He had a large sense of humor and distinctive laugh -- described once by Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, as "more of a cackle."

He was a Marine Corps veteran who saw action in the South Pacific during World War II. Many of his law clerks have gone on to successful careers in private practice or as judges themselves.

Wright was a prosecutor in Columbia, Missouri, before forming a successful trial practice in that city. A case he reveled in talking about was one in which he represented a husband in an "alienation of affections" case in which he obtained a verdict of $1.  

He was recommended for a newly created seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri in 1979 by U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton, a Missouri Democrat, and selected for the post by President Jimmy Carter. 

His appointment became the occasion for a self-effacing remark that associates said was typical of his wry sense of humor. ''You know what a federal judge is?'' he asked, then answered, ''It's a lawyer who knows a senator.''

In one of his best-known decisions, he struck down a highly restrictive Missouri abortion law in 1987. A federal appeals court affirmed most of the ruling but reversed the portion that allowed the use of public funds for abortions.

Wright and fellow U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs were known as "judicial twins" because they were sworn in as lawyers the same day in 1950 and then sworn in the same day as federal judges in October 1979.

"I would say he was very passionately intent on doing 'what is right' and was sponsored by Senator Eagleton with that in mind," Sachs said in an email.  

He said that Wright "had a strong, uninhibited sense of humor and was beloved (and fun) because of that."

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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