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Kevin Thomas Duffy, a long-serving federal judge on the Southern District of New York bench who oversaw many notable cases in his career, died this month of the coronavirus, his son told BuzzFeed News.
His son Kevin Duffy Jr. said he was transferred from a short-term rehabilitation facility in a nursing home to Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut after another resident at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. Duffy tested positive for the virus and died April 1 at the hospital, his son said.
The family had been unable to see him for four weeks before he died, his son said.
Over a career as a federal judge that spanned decades and began when Duffy was 39 years old, he developed a reputation as a tough issuer of sentences who was a beloved mentor to his clerks and a larger-than-life presence in the courtroom. It was a career that encompassed some of the biggest news stories of the second half of the 20th century.
Duffy sat as the judge during the 1985 trial of Gambino crime family members, a trial that was complicated by the famous December 1985 shooting of Gambino boss Paul Castellano outside the Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. He judged one of the trials of Black Liberation Army members who had robbed an armored Brink's truck in 1981. Duffy oversaw the trial of the Islamist militants who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and he presided over the trial of the would-be perpetrators of the “Bojinka plot,” a plan to hijack planes flying to the US and sink them into the ocean (one of whom, Ramzi Yousef, was also involved in the World Trade Center bombing).
Duffy was “a magnet for significant cases,” said Shawn Regan, a lawyer at Hunton Andrews Kurth who clerked for Duffy in the 1990s.
Born in 1933 in the Bronx to a family of Irish immigrants, Duffy attended Fordham University as an undergraduate and again in law school as a night student. In a statement last week, Matthew Diller, dean of the Fordham Law School, called Duffy a “giant in the legal community” who “presided over one critically important complex trial after another — demonstrating how the U.S district courts are an engine for justice.”
He met his wife, Irene Duffy, née Krumeich, at a party she was throwing that he crashed and stayed afterward to help clean up, according to Kevin Jr. They married in 1957. Duffy is survived by her; their children, Kevin Jr., Gavin, and Irene; and his two sisters. One of his sons, Patrick, died in 2017. Irene Duffy was also a judge during her career, serving on New York state courts; Duffy called her the “RJ,” or the “real Judge Duffy," according to Regan.
Before his judgeship, Duffy served as a prosecutor and as the New York administrator of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He was appointed to the Southern District of New York by Richard Nixon.
“Some judges are remembered for their ability to turn a phrase in a judicial opinion or identify a legal principle that ought to guide cases in the future,” said Judge P. Kevin Castel, a longtime friend of Duffy’s who clerked under him earlier in his career before serving alongside him in the Southern District of New York beginning in 2003. “His greatness was as a trial judge and managing complex and difficult trials in the courtroom.”
Duffy oversaw contentious and sometimes lengthy trials, and he was known as a judge who often imposed heavy sentences and spoke plainly and sometimes provocatively.
He told Yousef from the bench in 1998, while sentencing him to 240 years in prison for his role in the World Trade Center bombing: “You are not fit to uphold Islam. Your God is death. Your God is not Allah.”
“He was a pretty imposing figure on the bench, but in chambers and other personal interactions with him he was just a very caring, jovial guy,” said Ed O’Callaghan, who clerked for Duffy in 1995 when he was overseeing the Bojinka plot trial. O’Callaghan recently served in a top role at the Department of Justice during the Russia investigation and joined the firm Wilmer Hale this year. “He put just an enormous amount of consideration and concern into every sentencing decision he made."
Duffy’s decisions were sometimes controversial. In a 1993 case over whether an LGBTQ group could march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Duffy ruled that the parade organization had a right to bar the group under free speech grounds. Duffy wrote in his ruling at the time that the city’s Commission on Human Rights, which had ordered the group to be included, was equivalent to the Orwellian “thought police.”
Duffy stressed to his clerks that they should show respect to the permanent courthouse staff. “He knew everybody’s name — and I mean everybody,” his son Kevin Jr. said.
“Be kind to the court reporter, or they’ll take you down verbatim,” Duffy told his clerks, according to Castel.
Duffy commuted to work every day by driving from Pelham Manor to Pelham Bay, parking it, and then walking to the subway station and taking the 6 train all the way downtown to the federal courthouse, saving some money by not taking the Metro-North commuter train into the city, his son said.
“He understood exactly where he came from,” Kevin Jr. said. “He never held himself to be above others.”
Duffy encouraged his clerks to avoid legalese, quoting the famous jurist Learned Hand’s axiom “Give us the facts, give us the law, put it in Mother Goose language. After that, we’ll screw it up for ourselves,” according to Regan.
Duffy was a “total anomaly on the federal bench,” said Frederick Cohn, a left-wing defense lawyer who became an unlikely close friend to the more conservative Duffy. “He called almost everybody by their first name. He didn’t stand on a lot of ceremony.”
Duffy retired in 2016 and went into private practice with his son Kevin.
A funeral for Duffy has not yet been held due to coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions. His son said that the family hopes to hold a funeral Mass in the fall as well as a reception at Duffy’s beloved Fordham Law School. “It’s not fair to everyone else to put anyone at risk until this thing subsides,” Kevin Jr. said.