SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) – The bang of the gavel still stirs him.
And, for Senior U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon, his passion for the law will never recede.
Fifty years ago this month, Nealon officially entered the ranks of the federal judiciary as a district judge in Scranton.
President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the post in 1962.
He is now the longest-serving judge in the history of the 3rd U.S. Judicial Circuit, a jurisdiction that includes district courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands. He surpassed Willard Hall, who was appointed to the U.S. District of Delaware by President James Monroe in 1823 and served until 1871.
He is also the third longest-serving judge still sitting in the federal court system.
The 89-year-old jurist still heads to work at the federal building in Scranton, which happens to be named after him, and continues to take on cases.
“I love the law,” Nealon said in an interview last week. “I’m not as productive as I once was, but I try to do my share.”
Born in Scranton on July 31, 1923, Nealon was the first member of his family to become a lawyer, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Villanova University in 1947 and earning his law degree from Catholic University in 1950.
He came from humble, working-class roots — his father drove a bread truck for Spaulding Bakery and his mother was a nurse, said his son, Lackawanna County Judge Terrence R. Nealon.
“For me, he’s been the consummate role model, always led by example, and demonstrated the importance of honestly, fairness, hard work, and treating everyone with respect and courtesy,” his son said.
After practicing law locally for several years, he began his judicial career as a Lackawanna County judge in 1960.
Along the way during his up-and-coming career as a young lawyer and judge, he credited the kindness of others who helped him get to where he is today.
A county employee let him use a library room in the courthouse at no cost to meet clients because he had little money to rent his own office.
Trying to disguise his predicament, he would tell clients that he would happen to be in the library at a certain time, so they should just meet there to discuss their case, he said.
Later as a county judge, he had one man before him, accused of armed robbery, that he felt would one day commit a much more heinous and ruthless act. He had an “evil look in his eyes,” the judge said of George Banks, who at the time in 1961 was 19 and accused of shooting a bartender in South Scranton.
“You’re going to have to be watched,” the judge recalled thinking at the time, a premonition that the young man will walk the dark path of crime.
Twenty-one years later, Banks killed 13 people in a shooting rampage in Wilkes-Barre and Jenkins Township, including five of his own children.
He is now in state prison.
In one of his most publicized cases as a federal judge, he ruled to allow student-initiated prayer meetings at a Williamsport public high school, despite arguments that providing space for those meetings would violate Supreme Court decisions on the separation of church and state.
The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his decision, but it was later reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“My ruling was predicated on deprivation of access,” Nealon said.
Why should some after-school student groups be allowed to use school space, when other groups, like the Bible reading club, be denied just because of their religious affiliation? he asked.
One of Nealon’s federal law clerks would much later become a 3rd Circuit judge, Thomas I. Vanaskie.
They were also colleagues, serving together as district judges in Scranton.
“He certainly taught me the value of hard work,” said Vanaskie, “and he taught me the value of family and friendship.”
And, Nealon helped him shape his legal acumen, he said, turning him into a better thinker and writer. Both qualities serve him well on the Philadelphia-based appellate court, he added, because he often has to deconstruct arcane legal arguments and craft opinions affirming or reversing district court decisions.
“If you received a note on a draft (legal) opinion that this reads well, that was high praise,” Vanaskie said.
Nealon and his wife, Jean, have been married for 65 years. They raised 10 children, and have 27 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
“His family has always been the center of the universe,” said his son, Terrence, who presides over cases at the Lackawanna County Courthouse across the street from the William J. Nealon Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.
“And what really provides him with the greatest joy are the personal and professional successes of his children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren,” he said, “rather than his own professional achievements and milestones.”
William Nealon said he has no plans to retire.
“My public life, I was very fortunate,” Nealon said. “I had a lot of good people who supported me and stuck with me all the time. Now, I’m 89 and I’ll be 90 in July, but I still manage to move around.”