John Noonan, Federal Judge Who Served for Three Decades, Dies at 90

Appointed to the appeals court in San Francisco in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, Judge Noonan delighted conservatives and fellow Roman Catholics with his staunch opposition to legalized abortion.

But he also pilloried the Supreme Court for carving out so-called sovereign immunity — a right-wing shibboleth — which empowered states to discriminate, pollute or otherwise conflict with congressional mandates.

In 1990, Judge Noonan stayed the execution of a convicted murderer in California, Robert Alton Harris, to determine whether his constitutional rights had been violated when he was denied the benefit of his own competent psychiatric expert during the sentencing phase of his trial.

Mr. Harris died in a gas chamber in 1992 after the Supreme Court refused to grant another stay. It was the first application of the death penalty in the state in 25 years.

Steeped in Catholic theology, Judge Noonan became an expert on the roots and context of morality.

The historian Kevin Starr wrote in the Journal of Law and Religion in 1995, “A science, however inexact, the law is a humanistic pursuit as well, and no one in the past four decades has pursued the law with such humanistic fervor — a humanism enlivened by religion — as John Noonan.”

Judge Noonan’s book “Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists” (1965) was credited with influencing the commission appointed by Pope Paul VI to study birth control, which hired him as a historical consultant and recommended relaxing the church’s flat ban on birth control. The recommendation was overruled.

Among his 12 other books were his classic “Persons and Masks of the Law” (1975), which infused legal jargon with soulfulness, and other magisterial studies, including “Bribes” (1984), “The Responsible Judge: Readings in Judicial Ethics” (1993), “The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom” (1998) and “Narrowing the Nation’s Power: The Supreme Court Sides With the States” (2002).

“‘The Lustre of Our Country,’” Professor Richard Wightman Fox of Boston University wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “is a Catholic’s paean to the greatness of a liberal American tradition, but more important, it is a judge’s and scholar’s very enlightening tour through a complex legal and religious history.”

Judge Noonan, he added, “has the mix of intellectual chutzpah and humility to make it a tour de force.”

John Thomas Noonan Jr. was born Oct. 24, 1926, in Boston. His father was a lawyer. His mother was the former Marie Frances Shea.

A precocious student, he entered Harvard during his senior year in high school and graduated when he was 19 with a degree in English. He studied at St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge, and earned a master’s and a…

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