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The impact of Curtin’s pivotal decisions in desegregation cases is still being felt

He’s 94 years old, and John T. Curtin has decided that’s a good time to retire. After all, he has been sitting as a federal judge in Buffalo for almost half a century, having been nominated to the post by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the recommendation of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Curtin has sat on the bench longer than some people live.

It’s a record length of service for a judge here, and one that has left his stamp on many high-profile cases, including the desegregation of Buffalo’s schools and its police and fire departments and the contamination at Love Canal. Before most other Americans, he recognized the futility of the war on drugs and the damage it caused.

For all of that, he made some friends and more than a few enemies. The desegregation of schools here, as in many other places, enraged many people, some who simply didn’t want their children bused to different schools and some who were flat-out racist.

That was predictable. What wasn’t clear at the time of the 1972 decision was that some two decades later, the order he signed would be hailed as a national model for how to integrate a diverse school district.

That is to say, he made a difference. And not just any difference, but one in what was, and what remains, the most contentious and problematic aspect of American life. The order made many people unhappy, and while it’s always possible that a different path could have produced even better results, the fact is that he came down on the right side of the law and the right side of history.

He did it again with Buffalo’s nearly all-white police and fire departments, and with no less social importance. To understand the value of his action, think back no further than 2014, to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

While it became plain that Brown played a leading and aggressive role in the confrontation that cost him his life, it was also true that the city’s mainly white police department was viewed with deep suspicion by its largely minority population. The unrest that followed was a predictable consequence of a policy of racial exclusion and, with it, abuse of minority citizens.

There’s no reason that kind of confrontation couldn’t have happened here, or anywhere in the country. Yet Curtin’s order, which remains in effect, opened the police and fire departments to women and minorities. It has not been perfect, but the indisputable fact is that the city is much better off when members of a community can see that people who look like them hold positions of authority.

It’s been a remarkable career for Curtin, and one that deserves the thanks of the community he served for 48 years. He could have retired decades ago, but, because of his dedication to his profession, instead moved to senior status and continued to hear cases.

Different people will continue to debate the judiciousness of his rulings, which, we suspect, will be fine by Curtin, who plans to submit his walking papers today. But whatever anyone thinks about Curtin and his long service, this much is true: We should all be 94 before concluding that old age is creeping up on us.