Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph E. Tyson died early Monday. The Baton Rouge native was 63.
Federal District Clerk Nick Lorio confirmed the news of Tyson’s death, which drew remembrances from people who considered him a friend, mentor, a keen legal expert and fair-minded judge.
“Judge Tyson was an outstanding jurist and, more importantly, a fine person,” said longtime friend and fellow lawyer Winston G. Decuir Sr.
“He was one of the smartest lawyers and judges in Baton Rouge,” Decuir said. “He is going to be greatly, greatly missed by the entire Louisiana community.
“He helped many, many people,” Decuir said of the first black judge appointed to the federal bench in Baton Rouge.
U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., described Tyson as: “A loving father and husband, respected teacher and fair judge.
“Ralph Tyson was a selfless public servant who made Louisiana better each day.”
The senator added: “He will always be a part of Louisiana’s history and remembered as a dear friend.”
Appointed to the federal bench in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, Tyson served as chief of the nine-parish Middle District of Louisiana from 2005 until his death.
Tyson earned a bachelor’s degree from LSU in 1970 and his law degree from the school’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center in 1973.
His biography on the Middle District’s website said Tyson was in private practice from 1973 until 1988.
He served as Baton Rouge City Court judge from 1988 until 1993, when he won election to a judgeship on the state’s 19th Judicial District Court. He served the 19th District until his federal appointment in 1998.
Tyson served as City Court prosecutor before becoming that court’s judge.
He also served as an assistant state attorney general early in his career. And he taught law courses at both LSU and Southern University.
“He was kind of a mentor to me,” said defense lawyer Marci Blaize, who met Tyson when she was clerking for two other judges. “He was a genuine person. When he asked you how you were doing, he really wanted to know.”
Blaize said she lost a few battles in Tyson’s federal courtroom.
“I never questioned his legal decisions,” Blaize added. “I always knew they were sound.”
“He will be a tough act to follow,” she said. “I’ll miss him.”
There was no announcement on the cause of Tyson’s death.
He had been treated in the past for lung cancer.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Mark Upton said Tyson’s strict adherence to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights made him “a really exemplary jurist.”
Upton said it was remarkable that Tyson could preside over the 16-day jury trial that resulted in the conviction of former New Roads Mayor Tommy Nelson last month on racketeering and fraud charges.
“He was a really strong man,” Upton said. “He fought that disease for a long time. He never let it stop him from being a judge.”
That tenacity didn’t surprise Decuir, Tyson’s friend from their time as students at Southern Lab High School.
“He was a skinny (170-pound) tackle on the 1965 Southern Lab state championship team,” Decuir recalled.
Decuir added Tyson was always driven to excel and became “a classic trombone player” on three of the school’s bands.
“He just was one of the outstanding students at the school,” he said.
U.S. District Judge James J. Brady said he and the other Middle District judges would not comment on Tyson’s death until after family members complete plans for services.
An announcement on the district’s website Monday said: “Our court family is deeply saddened by the death early this morning of Chief Judge Ralph E. Tyson. Chief Judge Tyson was a wonderful person, a dedicated public servant and a wonderful leader and friend to all of us. We ask for your prayers for his family and for our court.”