Joseph McLaughlin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a longtime federal judge who was born of working-class roots in Brooklyn, nurtured in the Jesuit academic tradition and renowned for his scholarship, wit and compassion, died Thursday after a brief bout with pneumonia. He was 80.
McLaughlin went from academia to the federal judiciary in 1981, despite a lack of political connections and no party affiliation, when President Ronald Reagan nominated the then-dean of Fordham University School of Law for a slot on the Eastern District bench. Nine years later, he was elevated to the Second Circuit by President George H.W. Bush.
Although never politically active, McLaughlin frequently spoke to bar, academic and other groups and was well known and widely respected in the legal community. In 1981, he caught the eye of the newly elected Republican U.S. senator, Alfonse D'Amato, who was about to make his first judicial recommendation.
Sources said D'Amato was intent on making a point with his first nominee—that he was not going to promote political hacks—and insisted on a candidate worthy of the federal bench purely on merit. McLaughlin was D'Amato's first choice and his confirmation by the Senate on Sept. 25, 1981, began a 32-year career as a trial and appellate judge, a career in which he wrote more than 800 opinions.
"What a special, wonderful man," said Supreme Court Justice Timothy Driscoll of Nassau County, who clerked for McLaughlin in the early 1990s. "He had a hearty laugh, anecdotes to illustrate any point he wanted to make and a command of several languages. He would quote Latin, French, Spanish or Russian to make a point, and he had a command of evidence I wish to this day I could approach."
Joseph Michael McLaughlin was born in an apartment in 1933, the son of a trolley driver who struggled to send his son to the Jesuit-run Brooklyn Preparatory School.
At Brooklyn Prep, McLaughlin developed a love of learning, a fascination with the classics and languages and the Jesuit ethos and ethics that became his life-long credo, according to his family.
"He was a product of his Jesuit education," said Joseph McLaughlin Jr., the judge's son, a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and a Law Journal columnist. "He truly embodied the Jesuit creed of 'in the service of others.' His life was devoted to public service. He was supremely uninterested in material things. He only cared about the things that last—family, integrity, honor. I think the critical pivot in his life was coming under the wing of the Jesuits."
McLaughlin graduated from Fordham College, another Jesuit school, in 1954 and enrolled at Fordham Law. He was one year into law school when his education was interrupted by the Korean War and a two-year stint with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But McLaughlin, who served in Korea and attained the rank of captain, returned to Fordham after the war and served as editor-in-chief of the Fordham Law Review and was a member of the school's national moot court team. He graduated first in his class of 1959.
After practicing for two years at what is now Cahill Gordon & Reindel, McLaughlin yielded to the call of academia, took a cut in pay and went back to Fordham as a professor teaching evidence and New York practice.
In 1971, McLaughlin was named dean of the law school, a position he retained until his appointment to the bench. Throughout his deanship, McLaughlin was a New York Law Journal columnist.
Always known for his quick wit, one frequently repeated legend from McLaughlin's teaching days involves an encounter with a cocky law student who attempted to engage the professor in a debate. McLaughlin reportedly responded: "I will not engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man."
As a judge, McLaughlin was described in a 1989 Law Journal profile as a "scholar of towering intellect" who had presided over numerous high-profile cases. But even as a judge, the characteristic wit often shone through.
One of the stories involves a prosecutor who accused a defense attorney of "floating" in a long-winded cross examination. McLaughlin seemed to stand up for the defense attorney and told the counselor, 'You're not floating." The attorney was relieved, until the judge added, "You're sinking."
Among McLaughlin's most memorable decisions were United States v. Acosta, 963 F.2d 551 (1992), which held that a sentencing court should not consider the weight of unusable ingredients in a drug mixture; and Karibian v. Columbia University, 14 F.3d 773 (1994), which said an employee alleging Title VII sexual harassment need not show economic loss to prevail on a quid pro quo theory.
McLaughlin's son Matthew, a partner at Venable, said that even though his father spent the bulk of his career on the bench, he always regarded himself as a teacher.
"He was, at heart, a teacher, a law professor," Matthew McLaughlin said, adding that his father regularly taught as an adjunct at several schools, lectured at bar review courses and authored many of the commentaries to the Civil Practice Law and Rules. "To the end, even though he sat on one of the highest courts in the country, he thought of himself as a teacher of the law. He looked at opinions as teaching instruments for practicing lawyers."
Driscoll said his mentor taught him more than law.
"He made me a better judge, a better lawyer, a better person," Driscoll said. "He taught me the importance of scholarship, of temperament, to take your work seriously but to never take yourself too seriously and to always look for the human angle. He never forgot where he came from and was just very…real."
In addition to his sons Joseph Jr. and Matthew, McLaughlin is survived by his wife of 54 years, Frances; a daughter, Mary Jo Clines; and another son, Andrew, a senior paralegal at Schiff Hardin. He is also survived by 13 grandchildren.
Visiting hours will be from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, 1076 Madison Ave.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated Monday at 10 a.m. by the Reverend Joseph McShane, president of Fordham University, at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, 980 Park Ave.
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