Aug. 24, 1921 - April 14, 2017
He was a short, slightly built man with twinkling blue eyes, a gentle wit and a humble demeanor.
Judge John T. Curtin known for his decisions on racial discrimination, environmental issues and other controversies died Friday in Buffalo. He had experienced a series of health problems since October 2004, when he had a stroke and heart attack at age 83.
Curtin was appointed a federal judge in 1967, and before that, he served as the region's chief federal prosecutor.
Within the legal community, he was beloved and highly respected by colleagues.
"In terms of the longevity of his service and all the groundbreaking cases he handled during his career, I can't imagine any judge ever having as big an impact on this community as Judge Curtin," said R. Nils Olsen Jr., a former professor and former dean of the University at Buffalo Law School. "He had a profound understanding of the community."
Those who knew him described him as both soft-spoken and tenacious, and as a liberal who tried to make the law work for the downtrodden.
"He was a courageous judge who made difficult decisions and never hid from the people in the community," said Maryann Saccomando Freedman, a longtime Buffalo lawyer who is a former president of the Erie County and New York state bar associations. "No matter what kind of controversial cases he was working on, he kept his home number in the telephone book."
Judge Curtin's rulings in the 1970s led to integration, magnet schools and busing in the Buffalo Schools and forced minority hiring quotas in the city schools, police force and fire department. Some of his rulings led to harsh criticism and death threats, which he was always reluctant to discuss.
"He took a lot of heat. People were attacking him all the time. They attacked him on the talk shows," recalled Frank B. Mesiah, former president of the Buffalo branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Judge Curtin faced opposition in public opinion, but he always did what he felt was right."
He also presided over extremely complex litigation over environmental issues, including the nationally publicized dispute over contamination of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls.
But Judge Curtin downplayed his role in those cases, saying he was only following the laws passed by Congress.
As a judge, Curtin often said, his job was to apply the law to issues that other people brought into his court.
"Most people misunderstand how the courts work," he told The Buffalo News in a late 1985 interview. "[Judges] can't go out into the streets and tell people, 'Do this, do that.' "
At times, Judge Curtin could be extremely outspoken. He was one of the few judges who had no qualms about explaining his rulings – on the record – to news reporters.
In, 1994, he went public with his opinion that the governments's war on drugs was "a complete failure," and he protested it by refusing to take any new drug cases in his court. He also advocated the legalization of some drugs.
John Thomas Curtin grew up in South Buffalo as the son of a superintendent at the old Bethlehem Steel plant. A devout Catholic, Judge Curtin graduated from Canisius High School, Canisius College and University at Buffalo Law School.
His college years were interrupted by a call to dangerous military action during World War II. He joined the Marine Corps, became a lieutenant colonel and served as a fighter pilot in the South Pacific, providing air support to Marines involved in ground combat.
Although he displayed a picture of himself flying a fighter plane in his federal court chambers, the judge never enjoyed talking about his war experiences. He said he flew 35 combat missions, survived a crash landing in the Pacific Ocean at one point during his war service, which lasted from 1942 until 1945.
Graduating from law school in 1949, he began working as a young lawyer in Buffalo and also became active in Democratic Party politics. He ran for office twice – unsuccessful on both occasions – and at one time was considered by the party as a potential candidate for Buffalo mayor.
After working in the city Law Department as a confidential clerk to former State Supreme Court Justice William B. Lawless, Judge Curtin was named U.S. Attorney for Western New York in 1961. He received that designation from then-President John F. Kennedy.
He was known as a tough but fair prosecutor who won some big cases against organized crime figures.
As U.S attorney, Judge Curtin also pursued a job discrimination lawsuit against his father's old employer – Bethlehem Steel – and the United Steelworkers union. The lawsuit led to improvements in minority hiring and job assignments for minorities at the sprawling Lackawanna steel plant.
Judge Curtin often spoke of his great admiration for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother. He credited Robert Kennedy and Joseph F. Crangle, who then headed the Erie County Democratic Party, with helping him to become a federal judge in 1967.
In more than four decades in federal court, Judge Curtin was involved in many high-profile cases.
A series of decisions in the 1970s lead to the transfer and cross-city busing for thousands of students in the city's public schools. His decisions also led to the creation of a magnet schools program that received positive national publicity.
He also made decisions in the 1970s that forced the hiring of more minorities in the city schools, the Buffalo Police and the Buffalo Fire Department. Judge Curtin found that, in the past, police and fire officials had engaged in hiring discrimination against minorities.
Some Buffalonians reacted angrily to the busing, sending threatening letters to the judge and making anonymous threatening calls to the North Buffalo home where he lived with his wife, Jane, and their seven children.
A number of white job applicants for police officer, firefighter and teaching jobs felt the judge's ruling denied them a fair opportunity for a career.
Curtin said all those decisions – none of which were ever overturned by higher courts – were based entirely on the law, and never on his personal opinions. He said he understood why some people were angry.
"You can't make decisions in a vacuum or divorce yourself from the facts that your decisions are going to have an effect on people," Curtin said. "This is a democratic society and people have the right to complain. On the other hand, a judge has to make his decisions based on the law. If he gets 1,000 letters in favor of something and one letter against it, the good judge has to look at the thing and say, "The one fellow is right and the other 1,000 are wrong' "
And although some criticized him, many people in the community applauded Judge Curtin for attending public meetings where he talked about his school decisions with parents and educators.
"He was very much a part of his community," Olsen said. "He did things that were very unusual for a judge – giving interviews to the media and going out and speaking to parents and children about what was going on in the schools. He had a profound sense of his own power and of the dignity of everyone who appeared before him."
Every woman and minority who got a police or firefighter job with the city should look up to Judge Curtin with great admiration, Mesiah said.
"He never backed down from doing what he felt was right," Mesiah said. "I look at him not so much as a hero, but as an example of what every judge should be."
Judge Curtin presided over many complicated cases involving the environment and pollution. The case of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls received national publicity.
Huge lawsuits were filed by the state and federal governments after chemical contamination of the Love Canal neighborhood forced the evacuation of hundreds of families. The old Hooker Chemical Corp., which was later taken over by Occidental Chemical, was blamed for dumping thousands of tons of chemical waste there in the 1940s and 1950s.
Litigation, including a lengthy non-jury trial before the judge lasted 19 years. Ultimately, Occidental Chemical paid more than $233 million to settle state and federal lawsuits.
And Curtin handled many important criminal matters, notably a series of cases in the 1990s involving the LA Boys, a violent drug gang responsible for cocaine trafficking, kidnapping and numerous murders.
Judge Curtin handed out two of the longest prison terms – if not the longest – in Buffalo history when he sentenced the gang's leader, Donald "Sly" Green to four terms of life in prison, plus an additional 121 years. Green's chief enforcer, Darryl "Reese" Johnson, was sentenced to eight terms of life in prison.
Although Judge Curtin expressed no regrets about sentencing Green and Johnson, he had serious concerns about the federal government's war on drugs. He felt federal sentencing guidelines prescribed unreasonably long prison terms for low-level drug dealers.
In late 1994, he became one of the first of the nation's federal judges to begin refusing to take drug cases. Because he was then a senior – or semi-retired – judge, he was able to determine what kind of cases he wanted to take.
The nation's war on drugs was a "complete failure" Judge Curtin said, suggesting that the focus should be on treatment and counseling for drug defendants rather than long prison terms.
He also said the government should study the legalization of marijuana.
Judge Curtin was the district's chief judge for 14 of his years on the bench, ending in January of 1989. He became a senior or semi-retired judge, that same year.
Judge Curtin could have collected his full salary as a pension, but instead chose to keep working. He did "a real service to the community and to the taxpayers," said a colleague, District Judge Richard J. Arcara.
Judge Curtin won numerous awards during his career, including outstanding alumnus award from Canisius College and the University at Buffalo Law School, the Buffalo Historical Society's Red Jacket Award, the Erie County Bar Association's Bell Award, the State Bar Association's Robert L. Haig Award and the Buffalo Urban League's Equal Opportunity Award.
Aside from his work in the court, Judge Curtin loved running, skiing, golf and walking, activities he participated in until health problems began to affect him in his 80s.
An avid reader of newspapers, books and magazines, Judge Curtin especially enjoyed reading novels and biographies of great Americans.
At age 83, he suffered a stroke and heart attack. After six months of hospital treatment and recuperation, he returned to work.
"I don't think I'm the retiring type," he said.
Over the years, Curtin served as a friend and mentor to dozens of young lawyers whom he hired as law clerks. Many of them went on to become judges, prosecutors or top attorneys in Buffalo and other cities. He was especially close to his judicial assistant, Janet Kalpin Curry, and his longest-serving law clerks, William C. Schoellkopf and Karen McMahon.
He is survived by the former Jane Good, who married him in 1952, and four daughters, Ann Maxwell, Patricia Curtin, Dr. Mary Ellen Curtin and Eileen Bellanca; three sons John, Mark and William; 10 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.