Judge John T. Noonan, Jr. died April 17th at the age of 90. John came to Boalt in 1967 and was a member of our faculty for nearly twenty years, before being appointed by President Ronald Reagan to a newly created seat on the Ninth Circuit in 1985. He served as an active judge for 11 years, assuming senior status in 1996. As a senior judge, he continued to serve for many years, hearing cases and authoring opinions, the most recent of which was published in December 2016.
Over the years John returned to Boalt to teach an occasional class, as an emeritus faculty. In 2008 John, along with fellow judges Jay Bybee and Sidney Thomas, held oral argument at Boalt, as part of Ninth Circuit Day. Although John continued to be a member of our community, his thirty-two years of service on the bench means that many of us did not have a chance to know him well. An examination of the scope of his writing, which includes books on abortion, bribery, usury, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, family law, legal ethics, religious freedom, Shakespeare, slavery, and the development of moral theology, will give you a sense of what a unique and fascinating scholar he was.
John received his B.A. in English from Harvard University in 1944, his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Catholic University of America in 1949 and 1951, and his LL.B. from Harvard Law in 1954. He practiced law in Boston until 1960, when he accepted a faculty appointment at the University of Notre Dame Law School. In 1966, he was offered and accepted a position at Berkeley. He went on to become the Milo Rees Robbins Professor of Law at Berkeley. As a teacher, John focused on professional responsibility, jurisprudence, and legal history. He regularly taught a seminar on the role of the lawyer in society. John was also a committed campus citizen, chairing Berkeley’s Program in Religious Studies and the Committee on Medieval Studies, and teaching in the history department.
John’s scholarly writing was marked by a desire to seek understanding, rather than to learn rules. Indeed, one of his best-known books, Persons and Masks of the Law, was considered quite radical because it shifted the focus of law from the rules to the persons affected by the rules. As former California State Librarian and historian Kevin Starr put it, John was interested “in probing the interaction--psychological, moral, rhetorical and jurisprudential--of the three persons involved in the judicial process: the lawyer, the judge, and the litigant. The personhood of each of these figures . . . was as important as legal doctrine.” You can see this understanding of law in many of John’s opinions, including the groundbreaking 1987 opinion in Lazo-Majano v. INS, finding that domestic violence could be a basis for asylum.
Central to everything in John’s life was his family, his Catholic faith, and connections to the church. In addition to his work at Berkeley and at Boalt, he consulted with the Vatican and in 1984 was awarded Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal, in recognition of outstanding service to the Roman Catholic Church.
John is survived by his wife, the former Mary Lee Bennett, and their three children, John, Rebecca, and Susanna. We offer our deepest condolences to Mary Lee, John, Rebecca, Susanna, and to all those in the law school and Berkeley community to whom John was a friend and inspiration.
Click here for John Noonan's bibliography and links to a number of obituaries.