Senior US District Judge Conaboy Dead At 93
Senior U.S. District Judge Richard P. Conaboy, known for his compassion, humility and dedication to his family and the law, died Friday morning at Regional Hospital of Scranton surrounded by his extended family. He was 93.
The judge passed away peacefully at 7:30 a.m. with his wife of 68 years, Marion, 92, holding his hand, according to his son, Bill Conaboy Sr. He had been hospitalized on life support since last Saturday, when he suffered a heart attack after choking on food at an area restaurant.
“He was so strong and lived for many hours after being removed from life support,” Bill Conaboy said. “The general trauma of the event ... was beyond his ability to recover.”
Dozens of family members, including his 12 children, their spouses and numerous other family members kept a constant vigil as he lay in medically-induced comma, he said.
“My mother is the rock of this family and was at his side from the second he entered the hospital, holding his hand until the time he passed,” Conaboy said.
Born June 12, 1925, in the Minooka section of Scranton, Richard Conaboy began his legal career in 1951, specializing in labor law. He was appointed judge in Lackawanna County Court in 1962. He held that position until 1979, when he was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. He retired in 1992, but continued working as a senior judge.
With the help of then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, he was named chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. He held that post from 1994 to 1998. The former vice president and Scranton native visited him in the hospital on Sunday.
Bill Conaboy noted his father continued to hear matters before the court as of last Friday.
“He was in terrific health and still working every day,” Bill Conaboy said.
His death leaves a deep void in the legal community and community at large, friends and family members said.
“They just don’t come around like him too often,” said Lackawanna County Judge James Gibbons, who served as Conaboy’s law clerk in Lackawanna County Court from 1982 to 1984.
Gibbons and other attorneys and judges said Conaboy was an exceptional legal scholar. He was equally respected for his demeanor on the bench.
“He had a wonderful way with people,” Gibbons said. “It didn’t matter who was in the courtroom, everyone was treated the same way.”
He said Conaboy was a humble man known for his self-deprecating sense of humor and patience — an attribute Gibbons said Conaboy joked came from raising 12 children.
“He took his job very, very seriously, but didn’t take himself too seriously,” Gibbons said.
His demeanor was a great asset in helping to mediate disputes, said Lackawanna County Judge Terrence Nealon.
“He had a remarkable ability to resolve cases,” Nealon said. “He’d open a settlement conference with some type of humorous story or joke — usually a self-deprecating one — and defuse the rancor and tension.”
Christopher C. Conner, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said Conaboy bestowed “a truly memorable legacy” with his service to the court.
“Judge Conaboy was an astute jurist and the consummate gentleman, who made many, extraordinary contributions to our court and to our country,” Conner said in a prepared statement. “Our district will be forever honored by Judge Conaboy’s distinguished service.”
Attorney Ernest Preate Jr. lauded Conaboy for his efforts to reform sentencing guidelines when he was chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1994 to 1998.
“He was a compassionate man interested in making the system work and not just be a rubber stamp for prosecutors,” Preate said.
At the time he took the position, there was a crack cocaine epidemic in the nation. That led the legislature to significantly enhance penalties for possession of crack, compared to powder cocaine.
Bill Conaboy said his father was deeply concerned the guidelines disproportionately affected minorities.
“It was generally poverty-stricken minorities in inner cities filling our jails. My father’s goal was to ensure everyone was treated fairly,” he said.
Conaboy said his father’s efforts laid the ground work for the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act,which reduced the disparity.
“He got those conversations started,” Conaboy said.
His father was also deeply committed to the community, serving on many boards of charitable and community organizations throughout his life.
His dedication to the law and community was surpassed only by his love for his family, he said. In addition to his 12 children, he is survived by 48 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren, with several more on the way.
“He was a real family man and was so proud of his children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Nealon said.
Conaboy was lifelong friends with Nealon’s father, Senior U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon,who died Aug. 30.
Terrence Nealon said Conaboy remained a committed friend to his father even after his death. One of his father’s wishes was to have Conaboy serve as a pallbearer at his funeral. The family was reluctant to ask, knowing the strain carrying a casket could have on him.
“We did so with the expectation that his difficulty in walking would prevent him from doing so,” Nealon said.
To their surprise, he agreed.
“He was determined to honor my father’s wishes,” he said.
Conaboy’s funeral arrangements are pending, Bill Conaboy said. As the family grieves his death, they take solace in knowing he impacted so many lives.
“If anyone was born to be a judge, it was my dad,” Conaboy said. “He had a long, wonderful, blessed life. For that, we are enormously grateful. We will miss him immensely.”
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