Judge John Curtin
Judge John Curtin (Derek Gee)

Western District Judge John Curtin, who ordered the desegregation of Buffalo schools and presided over one of the largest toxic contamination cases in U.S. history, died Friday following a lengthy illness. He was 95.

Curtin oversaw years of litigation involving the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, which was built on top of chemical waste left in the 1940s and 1950s. Hundreds of families had to be evacuated in the 1970s after the waste began seeping into yards and residents reported illnesses and birth defects.

In 1989, Curtin found that Occidental Chemical, which had purchased the company that dumped the waste, could be held liable for the environmental damage at Love Canal. Five years later, however, he ruled the state did not warrant punitive damages for the pollution. The company ultimately paid over $200 million to settle state and federal lawsuits, as well as suits filed by individuals, and agreed to clean up the site.

Prior to the Love Canal case, Curtin held in Arthur v. Nyquist, 415 F. Supp 904 (1976) that the Buffalo Public School District “deliberately segregated” students and ordered integration efforts to start immediately. He also issued rulings to increase minority hiring in the police and fire departments.

“His rulings were really beacons of lights,” said Maryann Saccamundo Freedman, of counsel at Cohen & Lombardo in Buffalo. “For those rulings, he was significant, not just to legal community but to the entire community.”

Freedman, a former president of the New York State Bar Association, said Curtin’s rulings were not without controversy.

“He got death threats, but he kept his phone number in the phone book,” she recalled. “He never disconnected from the community. He thought it was just part of the job. He was very courageous.”

Born Aug. 24, 1921, in Buffalo, Curtin graduated from Canisius College in 1946 and from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1949. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 1952 to 1954, attaining and was a fighter pilot in the South Pacific during World War II, according to The Buffalo News.

Following several years in private practice and stints in the Buffalo Law Department as a confidential clerk to former state Supreme Court Justice William Lawless, he was appointed Western District U.S. Attorney in 1961.

Six years later, he was confirmed as a Western District judge. He served as chief judge from 1974 until he assumed senior status in 1989. He continued to carry a busy case load until just a year ago, when he assumed inactive status.

“He carried his share,” Freedman said. “And if you met him at a party or at a dinner, you would never, from his demeanor and conversation, have any idea of what a giant he was.”

During his tenure, Curtin served as the Western District’s Second Circuit representative to the Judicial Conference of the United States. He also was a member of the Second Circuit task force on gender, racial and ethnic fairness in the courts.

Western District Chief Judge Frank Geraci, Jr. described Curtin as “a true icon” who dedicated his life to the Western District and the Buffalo community.

“He was respected by attorneys, litigants and judicial colleagues, for his discernment of the constitution, his knowledge of the law, and his judicial temperament,” Geraci said in a statement.

Curtin is survived by his wife, Jane Curtin, four daughters, three sons, 10 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.

A burial mass will be held at noon Saturday in St. Joseph University Catholic Church, 3269 Main St.