By Brian Cox
Over the course of 24 years on the federal bench, Judge John Corbett O’Meara forged a reputation founded on his legal acumen and his gentlemanly and courteous demeanor.
O’Meara, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, by President Bill Clinton in 1994, closed his Ann Arbor chambers July 15 and went on inactive status.
In a statement on his legacy to the district court’s Historical Society, O’Meara said he would like to be remembered as “someone who worked hard at being fair and respectful of all the people” who came before him and as a judge who worked with the judicial system to promote justice.
O’Meara was born Nov. 4, 1933, in Hillsdale, Mich., the son of a politically active Democrat and insurance agency owner who was appointed U.S. Postmaster of Hillsdale by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. His mother was a schoolteacher turned homemaker.
The oldest of three children, O’Meara was born during the depths of the Great Depression but grew up in a financially stable household. His father was a member of the Michigan Democratic Central Committee and was humorously but inaccurately referred to as the only Democrat in Hillsdale County.
O’Meara was an honor student at Hillsdale High School who spent his summers at Culver Military Academy in Indiana. It was an experience that introduced him to a wider world.
“I met people from all over, “ said O’Meara in a 2010 interview with the Historical Society. “Including people who seemed to be from another wealthier world that we weren’t from.”
O’Meara graduated from high school in 1951 and enrolled at the University of Notre Dame on a ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) scholarship. He was an English major whose walk-on football career ended after he was knocked out on the second day of scrimmage. A top student who was honored for academic and leadership skills, O’Meara spent his summers on naval duty. He also worked as part-time announcer and program manager at the college radio station and supplemented his income by selling health insurance.
Upon receiving a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1955, O’Meara spent four years on active duty in the U.S. Navy – most of it aboard submarines. He was an engineering officer aboard the USS Barbero – the Navy’s first guided missile submarine – and was one of two officers who carried keys to arm the boat’s two hydrogen bomb missiles.
After completing active duty, he transferred to the Navy Reserve, where he would eventually attain the rank of Commanding Officer of the U.S. Naval Submarine Division 9-228 at the Brodhead Naval Armory in Detroit until he was honorably discharged in 1973.
After a stint in Washington, D.C. as staff assistant to former U.S. Sen. Phillip Hart, O’Meara decided to pursue the law, graduating from Harvard Law School in 1962. While at Harvard he served as coach of the freshman debate team and as a member of the staff of the freshman dean.
Following graduation, O’Meara returned to Michigan and joined the prominent Detroit law firm of Dickinson, Wright, Moon, Van Dusen, & Freeman, specializing in employment and labor law on behalf of companies. He became a partner in the firm and led its employment and labor law group until his appointment to the bench.
He taught employment law as an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law from 1965-1970 and served as an officer or member of various sections and committees of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan, and the Detroit Bar Association.
Among the more noteworthy of the many high-profile cases to come before O’Meara during his tenure on the bench was Henry Hill, et al v. Rick Snyder, et al. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles, but it wasn’t clear whether the ruling should apply retroactively. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine Michigan inmates who as juveniles were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In response, O’Meara ordered the state to stop enforcing a statute that denied the parole board jurisdiction to juvenile lifers, opening up the possibility of parole for hundreds of prisoners convicted as juveniles and serving mandatory life sentences.
O’Meara also ordered the state provide juvenile lifers with the opportunity to participate in educational and training programs available to the general prison population.
“I deeply appreciated his compassion and his willingness to recognize the human value of everyone that appeared in front of him,” said Ann Arbor lawyer Deborah LaBelle, who was involved in the prisoner litigation. “He did not shy away from recognizing that human frailty does not define people for life, that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and the recognition that everyone is entitled to a second chance.”
O’Meara resides in Ann Arbor with his wife of 43 years, Julia Donovan Darlow, a highly-accomplished attorney who specialized in international and domestic business transactions and corporate governance. She was the first woman to be elected president of the State Bar of Michigan and also was elected to the University of Michigan Regents.
The U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan contributed to this story.
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