If anyone ever took seriously the ancient advice to blossom where you are planted, John T. Curtin did. As a Marine in World War II, as a federal prosecutor and, for 48 years, as a federal judge based in Buffalo, Judge Curtin worked diligently to make a difference. And whether people agree with his decisions or not, there is no disputing that he made a difference.
And he was durable. Judge Curtin died on Friday at age 95 after a career that didn’t end until he was 94. His influence will long be felt in Western New York, even if one of his most far-reaching decisions had less impact than he might have hoped.
That, of course, was his order desegregating Buffalo public schools. Given the pernicious influence of racism, it was clear that a change was required, and Judge Curtin was up to the task. His order in the 1972 case required the forced busing of black and white students, but also the creation of specialized magnet schools that were meant to encourage the voluntary transfer of children.
It worked, at least for a time. While Buffalo and its schools now seem to be resegregating, his order acknowledged the intolerable reality of segregation and, he said, drew the support of many, even though it also drew angry opposition.
“The school case was difficult but important,” he told The News when he retired in 2016. “I want to thank the Buffalo community for their support.”
That, too, is emblematic of Judge Curtin’s approach to his judgeship. However consequential his decisions were, he was always a part of the community, willing to explain his decisions. He was no ivory tower arbiter. He had authority and he used it, but strove to make even his most controversial decisions understandable.
He was more effective in his provably successful efforts to desegregate Buffalo’s Police and Fire Departments. Ruling that the departments systematically discriminated against minority applicants, Judge Curtin’s order ultimately resulted in the hiring of many women and minority officers. That order also produced some backlash from white applicants who believed they were harmed as a result, but it had undeniable and important communitywide results. More importantly, it made the Police Department look at least somewhat like the city it served.
More generally, it is important for all Americans to believe that they can have productive and prosperous lives. That’s one of the most important benefits when public offices – from police departments to presidencies – are occupied by qualified minorities.
Judge Curtin was tenacious. It was 1979 when he issued his ruling on police and fire desegregation and he maintained it throughout his decades on the bench. It was only earlier this month that U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo, who took over the case from Judge Curtin, agreed to ease oversight of the departments.
Judge Curtin’s career was packed with other important cases, including the Love Canal environmental lawsuit. He also declared the nation’s war on drugs to be not only a failure, but destructive, and he eventually refused to hear those cases.
“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.”
It was true, and sometimes it takes courage to expose the truth. Over a judicial career that began when Lyndon B. Johnson was president, Judge Curtin showed over and over again that he had that kind of courage.