James Joseph Ronan

Associate Justice memorial

343 Mass. 784 (1962)

The Honorable James Joseph Ronan was an Associate Justice of this court from July 7, 1938, until his death on December 29, 1959. On December 12, 1961, a special sitting of the court was held at Boston, at which there were the following proceedings:

The Attorney General addressed the court as follows:

May it please Your Honors: It is a privilege and pleasure for me, as Attorney General of the Commonwealth, to present on behalf of the Bar of the Commonwealth a memorial in commemoration of James Joseph Ronan, lately an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

James Joseph Ronan was born in Salem on February 10, 1884. He was the oldest of eight children of the late James and Catherine Ronan.

He attended the Peabody schools; was graduated from Peabody High School in 1903; from Boston University in 1907; and from Boston University Law School with the degree of Bachelor of Jurisprudence (cum laude) in 1910. Admitted to the Bar in the same year, James Ronan opened his first law office in the Old Post Office Building on Washington Street in Salem.

In 1933 he was appointed counsel to the Special Crime Commission. That commission, which was established to determine whether the practice and procedure followed in the administration of the criminal law were adequate to the conditions resulting from the Prohibition Amendment, suggested amendments to the law, some of which were enacted at that time and others of which have more recently been put into effect, greatly improving the administration of criminal law.

In 1935 the late Governor Paul A. Dever, upon taking office as Attorney General, appointed James Joseph Ronan as First Assistant Attorney General.

James Ronan, then 51, was in the full maturity of his powers. Governor Dever, a man of 32, was already displaying the personal qualities which later made him one of our most able and effective Governors.

Both were strong men with a keen appreciation of the outstanding ability of each other. As First Assistant Attorney General, James Joseph Ronan, with his characteristic briskness, limitless energy, undeviating loyalty and careful and complete dedication, conducted many of the more important cases involving the Commonwealth and supervised the legal work of the staff.

In 1938 James Joseph Ronan was appointed by Governor Charles F. Hurley as an Associate Justice of this court to fill the vacancy which resulted from the death of Chief Justice Arthur Rugg. Justice Ronan was the first appointee to this court from Salem in more than fifty years.

Justice Ronan served on this court until his death on December 29, 1959, at the age of seventy-five.

Justice Ronan's chief interests in life were his family, the law, his Church and the public service. He was a devoted husband, a loving father, and a dedicated public servant.

His relationship with his associates whether at the Bar or on the Bench was characterized by a brotherly feeling of helpfulness which was particularly apparent in his dealings with the younger members of the Bar.

From his boyhood Justice Ronan applied himself completely to his studies and acquired all the knowledge that schools, college, law school and private research offered. He gave his unremitting attention and effort to his chosen vocation and became a master in his knowledge of the law and in its application.

On this court he was a hard working member of a team. His opinions are direct and thorough and will illuminate the law on the points discussed for years to come. He had a full appreciation of the problems and needs of the working man and woman and was most concerned in seeing that careful consideration was given to cases in which their rights were involved.

In hearing and deciding cases in this court, as in his prior professional activities, Justice Ronan acted in a brisk, energetic and cheerful manner. That he was happy in his work was apparent by the hurrying pace he used in going to and from this Court House and by his crisp, pointed and good humored utterances.

Like all others who as masters of their profession have served on this court, and only those who are such masters and are men of justice can serve here, Justice Ronan gladly relinquished the successes he could have had at the Bar for the greater opportunity to serve the public as a member of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Justice James Joseph Ronan will be remembered with esteem and affection as a justice who was firm but fair, brilliant and compassionate. In an honorable and dedicated manner he gave unhesitatingly of his God-given talents, his hard-earned knowledge and the experience he accumulated over his lifetime, to the administration of justice and service to his fellow man.

I respectfully request and move that this memorial be embodied in the records of this court.

Edward Morley, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

May it please Your Honors: For and on behalf of the Essex Bar Association, I am authorized to support the motion of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth.

In the long history of this court there has been a succession of men of great ability and wisdom. Whatever place judicial history may eventually give to James J. Ronan in this list of justices, one thing is certain, none shall surpass him in his devotion to his judicial duties.

Those of us who are privileged to practice law in Essex County are witnesses to the long hours and constant attention which he gave to the business of the court.

His social life, while he served here, was meager. Day after day we saw him in the law library at Salem, his law clerk at his side, busy in the preparation of decisions.

Although facilities had been provided so that he could work, undisturbed, he seldom used them. He chose to sit at a table near the center of the library where he could see and talk to those who came in.

Justice Ronan was by nature a rather reserved man, but he enjoyed discussing legal problems with attorneys. He was generous with his time and what may have appeared like intrusions on his busy day by members of the Bar, he seemed to appreciate.

No one could have worked harder or longer than he did. Most of his waking hours were spent working at the library or at home. In fact, his diligence, evidenced by his constant presence in the library, gave some of us qualms of conscience about our own attention to our legal duties.

The courts of this Commonwealth have always been busy. One history has branded the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as "a litigious people . . . even without lawyers to foment a controversy." With an ever growing population, the number of cases has continued to increase. It has taken men like Justice Ronan to bear the heavy burden of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Our generation has been fortunate that his talents and efforts were available to the judiciary of this Commonwealth for over a score of years.

The Bar of Essex County is proud to join in this memorial to another of its distinguished sons who has served with great honor as a member of the Supreme Judicial Court.

I ask Your Honors to allow the motion which is pending before you.

Edward O. Proctor, Esquire, addressed the court as follows:

I shall confine my remarks to a brief, but significant, period of Mr. Justice Ronan's life -- the three and one half years when he was First Assistant Attorney General of the Commonwealth. It was significant because for the first time he held a state office which gave full scope for the employment of his extraordinary talents in the field of law, and because his brilliant exercise of these talents led directly to his appointment as an Associate Justice of this court.

James J. Ronan became First Assistant Attorney General at the time that Paul A. Dever assumed office as Attorney General on January 16, 1935. He held that office until July 6, 1938, when he resigned to accept an appointment as Associate Justice of this court.

Judge Ronan was then 51 years of age, which made him 19 years senior to the youthful Attorney General, who was barely 32 years of age. The two had never met up to the time of his appointment, but an intimate and confidential relationship between the two was quickly established.

Judge Ronan's extraordinary proficiency in the law and his thoroughness in the preparation of every matter that he undertook and his complete sense of dedication lent early luster to the Attorney General's administration. The first two years were under the administration of James Michael Curley as Governor. The period was one of stress, and brought the Attorney General's office into occasional sharp conflict with the administration. In the situations that developed the exceptional qualities of Judge Ronan were brought into full play. While credit for the decisions rightly belongs to the Attorney General, credit should not be withheld from his assistant for implementing and fortifying them with cogent argument and legal authority.

Of such instances, I shall recall three which are illustrative:

On August 21, 1936, the two associate members of the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission, one of whom had held office only nine days, at a meeting from which the chairman was absent, voted to authorize two contractors who had completed performance under existing contracts, to do additional work involving an expenditure of over $500,000. The action aroused great public indignation and was widely condemned in the press. The Governor having orally asked the Attorney General for his opinion as to the validity of the action taken, the Attorney General conducted an investigation and held five public hearings to ascertain the facts. An exhaustive opinion written by Judge Ronan analyzed the complicated facts and held the action of the commission illegal and void.

The forthright character of the author of the opinion may be seen in the following paragraph, dealing with the award to one of the companies:

"The inclusion of sixty per cent of the total earth excavation and thirty-five per cent rock excavation, already awarded to one contractor, in a contract with another contractor warrants explanation, but when it also appears that the price for doing a portion of this work, i.e., the rock excavation, will involve an expenditure of more than $248,000 in excess of the price fixed by the existing award, and that the work is to be given at the rate of $7.50 a cubic yard to one who had already submitted a bid of $3.00 a cubic yard, constitutes a series of events demanding severe condemnation. Any contract so effected is contrary to public policy, inconsistent with the public interest, subversive of public welfare and must be stricken down. The plain dictates of common justice have been outraged. Nothing has been said and nothing can be said to mitigate or mollify such official conduct upon the part of those involved. At least, it constitutes a serious breach of public trust. There must be no temporizing with such inexcusable extravagance in the disbursement of public funds. My plain duty is to advise you that the action of the majority of this commission in attempting, on August 21, 1936, to award a contract for 150,000 cubic yards of earth excavation and approximately 40,000 cubic yards of rock excavation is a mere nullity."

A second incident followed in December of that year, when the Commission on Administration and Finance had assessed penalties upon three coal companies for delivery of inferior coal under contracts with the Commonwealth. At a meeting of the Governor and Council on December 11, 1936, it was declared that the penalties had been wrongfully and illegally imposed, and voted that the commission be directed to refund the amounts assessed. The Treasurer and Receiver General asked the Attorney General for his opinion on the legality of such payments on the warrant of the Governor and Council. The opinion written by Judge Ronan reviewed the constitutional and statutory law and held that the Governor and Council had no authority to supersede their judgment and discretion for that of the commission, and that their action was void.

The third episode to which I shall refer followed within a month. The Department of Public Works had purported to settle a claim of a contractor for $135,000. The Emergency Public Works Commission had refused to approve the settlement. The contractor appealed to the Governor and Council, who voted to annul the action of the Emergency Public Works Commission, determined that $135,000 was due and payable to the contractor, and approved a Treasurer's warrant for a payment which included that sum. Upon request from the Deputy Treasurer and Receiver General for an opinion as to whether payment could be lawfully made in accordance with said warrant, the Attorney General held that it could not. The opinion holds that:

   "The Governor and Council were entirely without jurisdiction to hear or determine the so-called appeal. . . The issuance of the warrant as a result of such proceedings has no force or effect. It lacks every semblance of validity."

Subsequently, when the contractor brought suit to enforce the settlement, this court sustained the ruling of the Attorney General in George A. Fuller Co. v. Commonwealth, 303 Mass. 216.

Assistant Attorney General Ronan, during his incumbency, briefed and argued all cases for the Commonwealth involving questions of constitutional law and taxation. Notable among these cases was Howe Brothers Company v. Unemployment Compensation Commission, 296 Mass. 275, decided December 20, 1936. This involved the constitutionality of the State unemployment compensation law and the Federal social security act. It was the first "New Deal" legislation to come before this court. Judge Ronan's scholarly 98 page brief, with copious citations of authorities, unquestionably was of great aid to the court in framing its own opinion upholding the constitutionality of both statutes.

Among his important tax cases was Atlantic Lumber Co. v. Commissioner of Corporations and Taxation (reported in 298 U.S. 553), which Judge Ronan argued before the United States Supreme Court on April 2, 1936. The Supreme Court affirmed a decision of this court holding that the excise tax levied on foreign corporations doing business in Massachusetts, which was based upon that proportion of a corporation's tangibles and intangibles deemed to be employed in Massachusetts, was not invalid as a burden on interstate commerce, notwithstanding that the tax might be paid from profits derived from interstate commerce.

Judge Ronan had a phenomenal memory for cases, which he could cite by volume and page, often telling the lawyers who argued the case, the judge who wrote the opinion, and the facts and law involved.

He was graced with a lively sense of humor, and had a habit of talking in picturesque metaphors which greatly enlivened his conversation.

He was a book lawyer, but not a pedant. He was kindly, if in a gruff way, to his associates, and is held in loving remembrance by his friends.

Chief Justice Wilkins responded as follows:

Mr. Attorney General and Brethren of the Bar:

Mr. Justice Ronan was an Essex County product. He lived his life in two cities: principally Salem, where he was born, practiced law, and died; and Peabody, where he spent his younger years and attended the public schools. If there had been an institution of higher learning or a law school in Salem or nearby, it may be safely said that there he would have enrolled as a student. But such not being the case, he sought and received both an academic and a law degree from Boston University. Upon admission to the Bar in 1910 he, as matter of course, began practice in his native Salem. He became associated with the Honorable Joseph F. Quinn, who was to become a greatly respected justice of the Superior Court, and later with Michael L. Sullivan, an acknowledged leader of the Essex Bar. His practice was general, but his strong points and the fields he most preferred were collaboration in the preparation and trial of cases, the writing of briefs, and the argument of questions of law both in the lower courts and on appeal. He was an experienced auditor and master. These achievements led naturally to his appointment as Assistant Attorney General of the Commonwealth, an office in which he served until his appointment to the Bench. To determine the number of trials in which he took part as a barrister or the number of his oral arguments as an advocate upon appeal would require an exhaustive survey, but the totals must be very great.

For twenty-one years he wrote pages into our Massachusetts Reports. His first case is Hite v. Hite, 301 Mass. 294. His last is Szpiro v. Corkin, 340 Mass. 260. The number of opinions of the full court of which he was the author is 864, of which 809 were signed by him and 55 were rescript opinions. Among those which are better known I cite but a few: Slome v. Chief of Police of Fitchburg, 304 Mass. 187. McFaden v. Nordblom, 307 Mass. 574. State Street Trust Company v. Hall, 311 Mass. 299. Wellesley College v. Attorney General, 313 Mass. 722. Eno v. Prime Manufacturing Company, 314 Mass. 686. Merit Oil Company v. Director of the Division on the Necessaries of Life, 319 Mass. 301. Meunier's Case, 319 Mass. 421. Lowell v. Boston, 322 Mass. 709. Barney & Carey Company v. Milton, 324 Mass. 440. Thayer Company v. Binnall, 326 Mass. 467. American Employers' Insurance Company v. Commissioner of Insurance, 335 Mass. 748.

Mr. Justice Ronan has been referred to as a lawyer's lawyer. He also was a judge's judge. In either capacity he was always available to help a colleague by suggestions from his own great experience, always including the citation of authorities, a host of which he could give from memory.

The law career of Mr. Justice Ronan was crowned by a dedication to the conscientious consideration of each recurring problem. It was sprung from and maintained by nearly uninterrupted concentration upon whatever was the subject at hand. What to most would have been drudgery was a source of happiness to him. That career ended, as he would have wished, in the early morning when about to leave home to take his place in a consultation of the court of which he was the senior member and with which he had been so long associated.

The motion that the memorial be spread upon the records of the court is granted.

The court will now adjourn.

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