Last week I drove to the Federal Building in downtown Ann Arbor, and waited while the big black security gate slid open. I got off the elevator and was greeted by my old friend, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara, wearing his customary double-breasted gray pinstriped suit, white shirt and red tie.
Two things worthy of note: 1) O’Meara celebrates his 80th birthday this week, and I wanted to talk with him about his career and his thoughts about our country. 2) If over the course of a lifetime, you succeed in having 10 friends – not acquaintances – you are very lucky, indeed, and I am lucky that John O’Meara is a friend.
He’s seen a lot over his eight decades, much of it at the intersection of politics and public service. Born and brought up in a Democratic family (possibly the only one) in Hillsdale County, O’Meara went to Notre Dame, where for three days he tried out for the football team. Later, he had much more success at other pursuits. After graduation, he joined the Navy where he was the Engineer Officer on the Navy’s first guided missile submarine. Following that, he went on to graduate from Harvard Law School: “It was either that or construction,” he said.
First, however, he did a stint in Washington, as staff assistant to the man who was widely regarded as the conscience of the U.S, Senate. “If you’re going to get engaged in politics, there’s no better way to get started than working for with Phil Hart.” O’Meara told me.
Among the men he got to know then: U.S. Senator and then President John F. Kennedy and his younger brother, Ted; Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver; Neil Staebler, then chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, and G. Mennen Williams, who was elected governor of Michigan a record six times.
Following Harvard, O’Meara returned to Michigan, where he joined the Dickinson, Wright law firm and started making his mark in Michigan politics as finance chair for a variety of candidates.
“I didn’t know what a finance chair did,” he says, “but part of it is keeping the candidate (and yourself) out of prison. I was regarded as a sort of goody two-shoes, and maybe that’s why so many people wanted me to monitor their fund-raising.”
O’Meara was appointed to the U.S. District Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and has served ever since, though he took senior status almost seven years ago.
During his service, he presided over the trial of Mafia don Jack Tocco, who was convicted on two RICO charges and eventually sent to federal prison. The judge also ruled that male prison guards had to stay out of the living quarters of female prisoners. He told me, “Some came up to me in tears, saying ‘You saved my life.’”
In a recent ruling, O’Meara held that throwing juveniles convicted of serious crimes in prison for life is unconstitutional. “It’s wrong and inhumane to condemn very young people to a life in prison, where they can’t get out and can never get on.”
When he talks about his life as a judge, the cases he has seen and the public affairs of his country, O’Meara’s face lights up, his answers come crisp and clear, his eyes bright and penetrating.
Among his observations:
- “Far too many young people are alienated by our politics. I’d say to them: Get involved. You don’t have any right to bitch about the system if you aren’t willing to try to change it.”
- “Gerrymandering legislative districts very often leads to the election of so many extremists that it helps cripple the democratic process.”
- "People complain about how awful and corrupt our politics is these days. But if you look back to the 1860’s, it’s just as bad. And, like the cleansing impact of the Civil War, we need big changes in our country to shake things up.”
Common sense observations, all. In a way, this column is a sort of a happy birthday card to my old friend. But I intend it also to spotlight and praise the thousands and thousands of good people in public service who, day in and day out, do their jobs, make things better, and care for our society. They are the members of school boards, the police officers, the mayors and township supervisors, the members of library boards, and, yes, the judges.
In these days when it’s so fashionable to put down, even revile, citizens who carry their citizenship on their sleeve, it’s these people, countless numbers of them, who make our society a better place.
Often they are little known, most are celebrated only in their own communities and families. But, like John Corbett O’Meara, they are essential parts of a functioning civil society.
Happy birthday, judge -- and congratulations to all who work to make this a better world.