John T. Noonan ’54 served for three decades on the federal bench, appointed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan. A prolific author, he wrote on moral issues from the perspective of a Catholic and a philosopher. He was also known for his humanity and his devotion to family, according to Harvard Law School Professor Andrew Kaufman ’54. Here, Kaufman shares memories of a man who was equally adept at charming a legendary HLS dean and a 2-year-old child.
The world of law has lost one of its giants. John Noonan, judge of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, died on April 17 at the age of 90. Described, rightly, in The New York Times obituary as a “polymath,” Noonan was a scholar, teacher, leading Catholic thinker, and prolific writer on a great many subjects, including canon law, usury, bribery, contraception, and abortion, as well as ethics. He also wrote biographical essays about many legal figures. He brought who he was to the bench—a deeply religious humanist with a strong sense of the meaning of justice. One cannot do him justice within the word limit that I have been given. And so I will use my allotted space to talk about the part of him that does not show up in the obituaries, the part I knew best from a friendship of 65 years, the human being. John was indomitable. I first saw that quality when he was a student at Harvard Law School taking Dean Griswold’s course in Taxation. John was then a rare kind of student, for he already had a Ph.D. from Catholic University. He was also a member of the Law Review and decided that, with all the things he was interested in doing while at law school, he could either do all the work in Taxation or he could attend all the Taxation classes but not both. He decided to do the former. At the end of the year Dean Griswold advertised for a research assistant to help him with a brief over the summer. Undeterred by the fact that he had never gone to class, John applied. When asked whose tax course he had taken, John replied “yours.” When Griswold said that he didn’t recognize John, John explained his choice. Griswold, also an indomitable sort, then said that he would read John’s exam — this was in the days before anonymous grading — and get back to him. John got an A and the job. John came from a wonderful family and was a family man. I saw that quite early when my wife Linda and I invited him to dinner before he had his own family. John had a passion for chocolate and Linda had made a chocolate mousse for dessert. Our then two-year-old son David eyed the dessert but was told it was for our guest and he would have to wait for any leftovers. When John arrived for dinner, David was already in his crib for the night but John wanted to meet him. When introduced, he was greeted by a sobbing David who said “You’re the man who is going to eat all that chocolate dessert.” You may imagine that with the greatest good humor, John refused seconds saying that he could not bear being remembered as the man who ate David’s dessert. The center of his life was his family—children, grandchildren, and first of all Mary Lee, his wife of 49 years. They helped make him the Catholic mensch that he was.