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Edward Hennessey, at 88; former SJC chief justice known for elegant opinions

Edward F. Hennessey, with former Senate President William Bulger and former House Speaker George Keverian. (GLOBE FILE/1988)

As a Republican jurist appointed by a Democratic governor to head the Supreme Judicial Court, Edward F. Hennessey had this to say about the 4-3 rulings in which he was the swing vote, "When justice requires, I'm a liberal. When justice requires, I'm a conservative."

Always modest and forever precise, he added that he had borrowed those words from a colleague.

Viewed by most as a moderate, he spent more than two decades as a judge in Massachusetts, the last 13 years as chief justice of the state's highest court. Mr. Hennessey, whose health had declined sharply over the past year, died yesterday in Briarwood Nursing Home in Needham. He was 88 and had lived in the community for many years.

"He was my hero. He was amazing," said Appeals Court Justice Janis Berry, who clerked for Mr. Hennessey at the Supreme Judicial Court in the mid-1970s. "I think of him as the quintessential judge. He was as brilliant as the stars can shine and as humble as invisibility will allow a man to be."

At the Supreme Judicial Court yesterday, Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall issued a statement saying "the death of Chief Justice Edward F. Hennessey marks the passage of a humble, wise jurist."

She quoted her predecessor as having said: "Perfection, if the judge seeks it, requires knowledge of the law and faithful application of the law; diligence and efficiency; unfailing courtesy without sacrifice of firmness and decisiveness; evenhandedness, while retaining a jealous regard for the individuality of every person; restraint, eternal restraint, particularly as to both the quality and quantity of speech; courage and strength in the face of criticism."

"No one exemplified these traits more than he did," Marshall said.

Despite the power that came with being the Commonwealth's top jurist, Mr. Hennessey was quick to remind those who asked that he was but part of the state's complex judicial system.

"One person, one man or woman, sitting in this chair, can only do so much," he told the Globe in April 1989, a few days before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Born in South Boston, he moved with his family to Newton when he was 6. His mother worked in a factory, his father stoked boilers.

"He started out with nothing," said his daughter, Beth A. Hennessey, a professor at Wellesley College. "In high school, they told him, 'Don't bother applying to college because you're Irish-Catholic.' "

Disregarding the advice, Mr. Hennessey became the first in his family to attend college and worked to pay his way through Northeastern University, from which he graduated in 1941.

"All through college he drove a Coca-Cola truck," his daughter said. "He had a size 17 1/2 collar -- all those years of carrying cases of Coke beefed up his neck. When I was growing up, we had no Coke in the house. He could not look at a Coke."

Mr. Hennessey served in the Army during World War II and was a captain, receiving a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. A shortage of lawyers prompted the Army to assign some who had not attended law school to prosecute and defend soldiers during court martial proceedings. Mr. Hennessey was among the appointed attorneys and he was fascinated by the work. After the war, he went to Boston University Law School, graduating in 1949.

Meanwhile, he married Elizabeth A. O'Toole, whom he had known most of his life.

"My parents met in the sixth grade in the Newton Public Schools," their daughter said. "One Sunday after Mass he asked if he could walk her home, and she got so flustered that she said no, she had a ride. But she didn't and had to walk way out of her way to get home without him seeing her."

The two eventually joined paths and became sweethearts. They were engaged before he left for the war and married in October 1945, the month he returned.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, he practiced civil and criminal law and was an assistant Middlesex district attorney. In 1967, Governor John Volpe appointed him to the state Superior Court. Four years later, Governor Francis Sargent elevated Mr. Hennessey to the Supreme Judicial Court, where he served as an associate justice until Governor Michael Dukakis choose him to be chief justice in 1975.

Among the many decisions he wrote was the court's 1980 ruling that the state's death penalty, signed into law less than a year earlier, was unconstitutional because it was "unacceptable under contemporary standards in its unique and inherent capacity to inflict pain" and that it discriminated against minorities, "particularly blacks."

"We reject any suggestion that racial discrimination is confined to the South or to any other geographical area," Mr. Hennessey wrote.

Mr. Hennessey did not confine his writing to major cases, however.

"He was a prolific writer," said Thomas Maffei, an attorney who was Mr. Hennessey's first clerk at the SJC. "Once he became the chief he could pick and choose those decisions he wanted to write. He always took a lot. He loved to write."

"He wrote not only prolifically, but elegantly, everlastingly, with enduring principles," Berry said.

Perhaps because of his modest beginnings, Mr. Hennessey took pains to remain rooted in the lives of the people affected by his rulings.

"He was the most modest guy in the world," Maffei said. "He took the train from South Station for years, never had a driver. He'd call me regularly and say, 'Let's meet at the fish house' -- his term for the Union Oyster House. We'd sit in a booth and he'd have scrod and be chatting it up with the waitresses and they didn't have a clue who he was."

"When he got cases, he remembered what it was like to live an ordinary life and what challenges there were for people," said Renee M. Landers, who clerked for Mr. Hennessey in the mid-1980s and now is an associate professor at Suffolk University Law School. "I think it informed the way he looked at the law."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Hennessey leaves two grandsons.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Bartholomew Church in Needham. Burial will be private.