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Judge Curtin to retire, ending nearly five decades on federal bench

John T. Curtin’s legacy extends well beyond the walls of the courthouses in which he spent nearly five decades.

As a federal judge, he touched the lives of young children going to segregated schools in Buffalo and families living with environmental disaster in Niagara Falls.

It was a career on the bench that started with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s nomination and will end Monday with a retirement letter to President Obama.

No other local judge has served longer or, many would argue, with greater distinction.

“It’s the right time,” Curtin said Thursday. “I’m 94 and it’s becoming more and more difficult.”

Curtin’s retirement, announced in an email to friends and colleagues, came more than 10 years after a heart attack and stroke left many wondering if he would return to the bench.

“I don’t think I’m the retiring type,” he joked at the time.

Curtin did return and continued to oversee the desegregation and environmental cases that earned him a reputation for shepherding important and controversial lawsuits to resolution.

After 48 years on the bench, he is one of the most beloved and vilified public officials in Western New York, even now, years after many of his most controversial rulings. Critics have consistently portrayed him as a liberal, activist judge eager to meddle in society, but supporters will tell you that no, it’s his courage and independence that made him unpopular.

More than any other case, it was the 1972 Buffalo Public Schools desegregation suit that made Curtin a household name – not always in a favorable light. Even now, he remembers the anger among parents and students upset with his integration order.

His ruling led to a plan that included the forced busing of black and white students and the creation of specialized magnet schools designed to encourage the voluntary transfer of children.

By the time Curtin lifted his order more than 20 years later, the magnet program was popular and educators were hailing Buffalo as a model for how to integrate a diverse public school district.

Even though there are signs that the city schools are resegregating, Curtin thinks his order, while originally unpopular, was productive in the end because families bought into it.

“The school case was difficult but important,” he said Thursday. “I want to thank the Buffalo community for their support.”

Curtin also issued orders to desegregate Buffalo’s police and fire departments, a move that ushered in a new generation of women and minority officers and firefighters. His orders remain in effect to this day, although a resolution to both suits may be near.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Curtin oversaw a huge lawsuit about toxic waste dumped in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls. The case led to the relocation of hundreds of residents and became a national rallying cry for environmentalists.

In 1994, the judge found that Hooker Chemical Co., the predecessor to Occidental Chemical Corp., negligently dumped chemicals into Love Canal. He stopped short of awarding punitive damages but his rulings led to more than $233 million in settlements by Occidental.

“We have to do more to keep our environment clean and it’s becoming more and more difficult,” he said Thursday.

Curtin, who has never been a fan of the war on drugs, also made headlines when he stopped hearing drug cases more than 20 years ago. He views the crackdown on illegal drugs as a complete failure and thinks the long sentences associated with drug convictions are one of the primary reasons prisons are overcrowded.

“This program we have of locking men and women away for 20- and 30-year sentences, it isn’t working,” he said in 2007. “I don’t see the deterrent value of these sentences. The kids on the street are still selling drugs and using guns.”

Nominated by Johnson in 1967 at the urging of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Curtin was a U.S. Attorney with a reputation for organized crime investigations. As a judge, he would later oversee the L.A. Boys gang case, in which he gave two of the longest prison terms in local history to Donald “Sly” Green and Darryl “Reese” Johnson.

Inside and outside the courtroom, Curtin was known for his soft-spoken demeanor and even-handed temperament.

“It definitely is bittersweet,” Karen M. McMahon, a law clerk for the past 14 years, said of Curtin’s retirement. “The judge has always represented what the legal profession aspires to be.”

For the rest of his staff, Janet Curry and William C. Schoellkopf, it’s the end of an era in Buffalo federal court, an era marked by landmark rulings, historic court cases and a boss who was always there for them.

“He was always looking for the best in people,” said Curry, her voice cracking with emotion. “He was always pushing people to do more, to be better.”

The people closest to Curtin were surprised at the news.

“Federal judges are appointed for life,” said Schoellkopf. “For Judge Curtin, that meant serving for life.”