- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

RICHMOND (AP) — Robert R. Merhige Jr., a longtime U.S. District Court judge known best for his highly unpopular desegregation rulings in Virginia, died Feb. 18 at VCU Medical Center. He was 86.

Judge Merhige died after undergoing open heart surgery on Tuesday, said his son, Mark R. Merhige.

“He was having a very rough last few months,” Mr. Merhige said yesterday.

Judge Merhige was named to the federal bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. Among the judge’s best-known decisions were his orders integrating dozens of Virginia’s school systems, which made him so unpopular that, for a time, he required 24-hour protection by U.S. marshals.

In one of his most controversial decisions, in 1972, he ordered the consolidation of public school systems in Richmond and the neighboring counties of Henrico and Chesterfield to stop segregation. Last year, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he was still amazed, disappointed and angry at the public reaction to his rulings.

The consolidation order was reversed on appeal and made its way to the Supreme Court. In 1973, the high court deadlocked 4-4 on the case, which ended the consolidation.

In 1968, Judge Merhige ruled that the conflict in Vietnam was a war, whether or not it was a declared war. He issued the ruling in a case in which 96 Army reservists tried to avoid serving in Vietnam. He denied their request.

Judge Merhige wanted to take semi-retirement, or senior status, in early 1985, but it was delayed because he was presiding over the bankruptcy case of A.H. Robins Co., a Richmond-based pharmaceuticals firm plagued by lawsuits over its Dalkon Shield birth-control device.

He wound up taking senior status in November 1986 but continued a busy schedule at the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Richmond. He retired in 1998 and joined the law firm of Hunton & Williams in Richmond.

“He was a giant in the law,” said former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, whose office at Hunton & Williams was next to the judge’s.

Born in New York City, Mr. Merhige attended High Point College in North Carolina and received his law degree from University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams School of Law in 1942.

He served in the Army Air Forces in World War II.

Judge Merhige practiced law in Richmond from 1945 until his appointment to the federal bench.

Besides his son, Mark, Judge Merhige is survived by his wife, Shirley G. Merhige; his son, Robert R. Merhige III of Virginia Beach; one sister; three brothers; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Service arrangements were incomplete yesterday morning.

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