Sean Kirst: Judge John T. Curtin, a student of liberty and conscience to the end - The Buffalo News
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Sean Kirst: Judge John T. Curtin, a student of liberty and conscience to the end

Maybe a decade ago, John Hurley asked John Zeis for a favor.

Zeis teaches philosophy at Canisius College. Hurley, now president of Canisius, was a high-ranking college administrator.

Hurley told Zeis there was an alumnus, a guy in his 80s, who wanted to sit in on a philosophy class. Zeis suggested a 200 level course, one essentially built for sophomores, that met in the Churchill Academic Tower.

It was an ethics course. It got down to the bedrock, the core nature, of classic thought on right and wrong.

That is how Zeis became a friend – and philosophical sparring partner - of John T. Curtin, the federal district court justice.

“The thing that is most evident to me is that he was so reflective of so many of these things, which is really atypical of people,” said Zeis, 66. “Most people do not really question reflectively, critically, their own ethical position.”

Curtin never stepped away from that questioning. The philosophy class forged a connection with Zeis that endured for years. A month or two ago, Curtin and Zeis spoke by phone about when they might get together again. Even into his 90s, Curtin - who made decisions that influenced countless everyday lives in Western New York – kept examining and studying the core elements of his own choices.

His funeral is Saturday. Curtin died last week at 95, a year to the month from his formal retirement from the bench.

Over his long career, he made rulings on some of the most difficult and sweeping issues in regional history. It was Curtin who oversaw the desegregation of Buffalo’s schools and its police and fire departments, Curtin who ruled that Occidental Chemical - formerly the Hooker Chemical Co. - was negligent in the contamination of a Niagara Falls neighborhood at Love Canal, Curtin who was asked to intervene after dozens of prisoners and nine hostages were shot to death amid the police siege that ended a 1971 uprising at Attica state prison.

Yet he refused to be preoccupied with his own standing. His friends say he always pushed himself to reject and resist easy assumptions. His thinking never calcified, even toward the end of his life. The course on ethics cut to the heart of who he was. Maybe a year or two ago, Richard Escobales Jr. – a professor emeritus of mathematics at Canisius – learned from Hurley that Curtin wanted to refresh his knowledge of calculus, so Escobales brought the judge a textbook.

In his 90s, he was tackling a subject many teenagers are afraid to touch.

“God rest his soul,” Escobales said. “He was a great man.”

John Zeis, professor of philosophy at Canisius College; Judge John T. Curtin, in his 80s, became a student and a friend. (Submitted image)

In his final months, Curtin continued to challenge himself on the fundamental questions of morality – and on the danger of preconceptions. Richard Griffin, 84, a Buffalo lawyer and a longtime friend, recalled how Curtin and his wife, Jane, would sometimes travel to Florida, in winter.

Curtin told Griffin — no relation to Jimmy Griffin, the late mayor of Buffalo — that Jane would head to the beach, for a welcome break from harsh Buffalo winters.

For his part, the judge would head to the nearest federal court, to listen in on the proceedings of the day.

And to see what he could learn.

“He was a man who always wanted to do the right thing,” said Griffin, who represented the NAACP and longtime city councilor George Arthur during the monumental and much-debated case, in Curtin's courtroom, that sought to break up racial segregation in the Buffalo schools.

Curtin, a World War II veteran and son of a steel plant superintendent, came from a South Buffalo childhood. He and Griffin both followed a path of Jesuit education and reflection that began at Canisius High School and continued through Canisius College. Over the past few decades, as couples, the Griffins and Curtins would sometimes buy roast beef on kimmelweck sandwiches from Charlie the Butcher’s, then settle in to watch the Buffalo Bills – an exercise unto itself in philosophical endurance.

Certain things stand out in Griffin’s memory: He and his wife, also named Jane, became close with the Curtins through playing tennis, as mixed doubles. Curtin was a devoted runner, a Turkey Trot regular who often circled Delaware Park. He had a deep “sensitivity to the underprivileged,” Griffin said.

Beyond all else, Griffin said, “he was an outstanding listener,” someone who offered an intense sense of total presence, whether it was in the courtroom or in a conversation with a friend.

The thank-you note John T. Curtin sent to Richard Escobales Jr. (Richard Escobales Jr. )

It didn’t surprise Griffin that Curtin, in his 80s, would resume his philosophical studies with Zeis. In the classroom, with textbooks and notebook, he was surrounded by millennials, students younger than the judge by almost 70 years. Once the semester was finished, he and Zeis continued their meetings. Zeis once drove Curtin to Niagara University, where the judge stood before a class and offered a philosophy-based defense of the desegregation decision, which in the 1970s triggered a firestorm of civic debate.

The two men talked about Aristotle and John Locke, about Thomas Hobbes and St. Thomas Aquinas. They often spoke of John Rawls and his principles of justice, especially his thoughts on the nature of inequalities. They would go to Spot Coffee and debate about core questions of American democracy: Which inequalities were inevitable? Which ones sometimes made sense, as in someone with great talent — Zeis likes the idea of baseball legend Derek Jeter as a whimsical example — making a fortune through a skill that is of larger benefit?

And in which cases, as Curtin attempted with the schools, could moral inequalities be remedied by law?

The judge kept turning over these questions in his mind. In the 1990s, he became intrigued by the reasoning behind ReconsiDer, an Upstate forum that challenged mass incarceration of drug users, an organization that advocated change in American drug laws. Nick Eyle, ReconsiDer’s founder, recalls the way Curtin would listen intently to a passionate argument, how he spoke out against the war on drugs “when it was still a difficult position” for a senior federal judge.

Hurley, the Canisius president, said he stopped by Curtin’s apartment about a month ago to bring him a book by the Rev. William Barber II, a civil rights leader from North Carolina. Curtin was frail. It was difficult for him to leave his home. But his mind remained a powerful engine, Hurley said.

Curtin was making his way through another book: He had gone back to read 17th century poet John Milton, who agonized over the themes – the eternal challenges – of liberty and conscience.

To Griffin, who struggles for composure in summarizing why he has such respect for Curtin, all of it speaks to a jurist of deep humility. He said the judge “had a sensitivity to the rights of all persons, whether of substantial means or from the hardest poverty, whether they be from another country or went to premium schools in America.” In the courtroom, or as a friend, Griffin said Curtin was not a man who became impatient or “wanted you to get on with it.”

He was a Buffalo guy seeking to reconcile his city's warmth and grief, a quest transcending contradiction.

It became his ethic.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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