The obituaries for Thomas Meskill Jr. have largely focused on his time as Connecticut governor and congressman. But the legal community knew Meskill as a longtime judge on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Appointed in 1975, he was still serving as a senor judge when he died last week at age 79.
Among those who clerked for him is Melanie Abbott, now a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law. Abbott said she didn’t share Meskill’s Republican political philosophy, but she came to agree with virtually all his legal decisions.
Abbott, who clerked in 1984 and 1985, normally teachers civil procedure and poverty law at Quinnipiac, but she is currently on sabbatical pursuing two writing projects. She spoke with Law Tribune Senior Writer Thomas Scheffey:
Melanie Abbott:At the time he hired me, nobody from what was then the University of Bridgeport had ever had a clerkship with a federal judge before. … He told me that he’d been in the same position when the University of Connecticut School of Law had been a newer school, and he always felt that he had to apologize for not having gone to Yale. He had less ego than anybody I’ve ever met who had anything to do with politics. He was very low-key, worked very hard, was very smart. The only thing he resented was that there had been some outcry to his being appointed to the bench.
Law Tribune: The ABA gave him a negative recommendation because of a supposed lack of legal experience.
Abbott: They really underestimated his intelligence and his ability to do the job well. I think he very much felt vindicated by the fact that he was extremely well thought of after he had been on the court for a while.
Law Tribune: He’d never been a judge before his appointment to the 2nd Circuit, right?
Abbott: No. He’d been a practicing lawyer a pretty short time. He’d mostly been in politics, so people didn’t realize how good he’d be at the job. The thing that I remember the most was that he was such a nice person to be around. Some people who wind up being federal judges can make a point of how powerful they are all the time. He was just exactly the opposite of that.
Law Tribune: Where were his chambers?
Abbott: In New Britain. In the years I was there, we were in a little, two-story office building with a pediatric dentist on one side. Eventually, they moved to the old post office building in New Britain. One week a month, he would go to New York and sit in the Foley Square courthouse. He would always eat lunch at the little cafes in New Britain, and everyone knew him because he’d been mayor [of New Britain], governor and congressman.
Law Tribune: Did he write any particularly notable opinions?
Abbott: Because he was an appellate judge, his goal was to stay within the bounds of what the law was, as defined by the Supreme Court. He was a judicial conservative in the way that conservative used to be interpreted, instead of, ‘Let’s turn the laws back to the way we thought they should be.’ He was the opposite of an activist judge. He was always carefully adhering to what the law was, and trying not to overstep, and I think that’s a different perspective than many judges have now. And it’s a reason that trying to find a list of greatest hits is difficult, because he was not reaching out to make law.