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Ex-jurist O'Connor dies at 79


He was known as "The Great Dissenter" on the state's highest court, a judge who did not hesitate to stand alone on the losing side if he thought it was the right side. In 16 years as an associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Francis P. O'Connor went his own way on some of the most divisive social issues of the 1980s and 1990s, from the right of gay people to adopt to the right of the terminally ill to die.

Governor Edward King named O'Connor to the court in 1981 in hopes of getting a conservative who would reliably oppose abortion, but the Commonwealth got someone less easy to pigeonhole. O'Connor strenuously opposed abortion, but he frequently broke with conservatives, too, opposing the death penalty and sometimes sticking up for the rights of defendants.

Through it all, friends and colleagues say the longtime Shrewsbury resident and father of 10 remained friends with liberals and conservatives alike.

"He was one of the most distinguished and knowledgeable judges that I know," said Justice John M. Greaney, one of two remaining justices currently on the court who served with O'Connor, who retired in 1997. "He approached each case with impartiality, with a great deal of legal research and thought, and wrote opinions that . . . would stand as precedent long after he retired from the court."

O'Connor died Friday night at Notre Dame du Lac in Worcester at the age of 79 of Alzheimer's disease.

He was remembered yesterday as a man with three passions: faith, family, and the law.

An Army veteran who served in occupied Korea after World War II, O'Connor went to the College of the Holy Cross followed by Boston College Law School upon his return. He then launched his long legal career, first as a private attorney, then as a judge. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Ann, began their large family that now includes 30 grandchildren.

"I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Supreme Judicial Court justice Francis P. O'Connor," Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement. "Justice O'Connor served our highest court with honor and distinction for many years and was widely respected and admired for his intellect, his integrity and humanity, and his commitment to the legal community and beyond."

After the US Supreme Court legalized abortion nationally in 1973, O'Connor helped found the antiabortion organization Massachusetts Citizens for Life. He told legislators at his SJC nomination hearing that he personally found abortion abhorrent, but said he would follow the law of the land. On the court, he opposed the majority opinion that banned abortion clinic blockades by antiabortion protesters. Though the majority said these protests could unfairly intimidate women, O'Connor argued that the ban could "impermissibly chill" people's right to protest.

O'Connor's daughter Ellen O'Connor, director of judicial education for the Massachusetts trial court, said that her father was guided by an overall respect for life rather than a rigid ideology. For instance, he was wary of extending the right to die to very sick people, arguing in one case that it could lead to a "legal embrace of suicide."

In his years on the SJC, O'Connor wrote numerous important majority opinions, such as the 1987 decision that denied a woman the right to sue for damages after her longtime boyfriend was injured in a work accident. If unmarried couples are given the same status as married couples, O'Connor wrote for the majority, it would subvert the institution of marriage. Likewise, O'Connor acted for the court in 1993 when he refused to stop gays from marching in South Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

But court followers say O'Connor had as much impact on the court when he broke with the majority and wrote careful, sometimes passionate dissenting opinions.

"He always took a lot longer than the rest of the court to get his cases done because he was so thoughtful," recalled Sue Finegan, a partner at the Boston law firm Mintz Levin who served as a law clerk for O'Connor in 1992 and 1993. "He loved to dissent and he was not one to sign on to an opinion when he felt strongly about it."

Ellen O'Connor, who followed her father's footsteps into law, said she will always remember commuting to law school with him in the early 1980s. He would analyze real cases before the SJC, teaching his daughter as they traveled the turnpike.

"I learned more in my drives back and forth from Shrewsbury to Boston than I did in my formal course book," she said.

In addition to his wife of 52 years, and his daughter Ellen of Shrewsbury, O'Connor leaves five other daughters, Kathleen A. of Brunswick, Maine, Maureen T. Chamberlain of Northborough, and Ann E. Iaccarino, Jane O'Connor Lizotte, and Joyce O'Connor Davidson, all of Shrewsbury; four sons, F. Patrick Jr. of East Falmouth; Brien T. of West Newton; Thomas J. of Shrewsbury; and Matthew P. of Hopkinton; and a sister, K. Joan of Belmont.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. Mary's Church in Shrewsbury Center. Burial will follow in Mountain View Cemetery in Shrewsbury.