ORAL HISTORY OF JUDGE MICHAEL W. FARRELL
JULY 30, 2013
The interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of the Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewee is Judge Michael W. Farrell. The
interviewer is Lory Barsdate Easton. The interview is taking place on July 30, 2013, at the
District of Columbia Court of Appeals. This is the first interview.
Mrs. Easton: So, I guess that I’ll more officially start this, even though this is an
unofficial preliminary get-together with Judge Michael Farrell.
Judge Farrell: Pleasure to be here.
Mrs. Easton: Well thank you! Thank you! You know that the classic way to begin
an oral history is at the beginning, and so— (laughter)
Judge Farrell: You don’t really want to embarrass me, do you?
Mrs. Easton: Oh certainly not, certainly not, but I do want to get to know you, and
so I’d like to find out where you grew up.
Judge Farrell: Well, I grew up in the state of New Jersey in Essex County. This is
sort of in north central New Jersey. I was born—do I have to give this
kind of confidential data? I was born in 1938. I was the second
youngest of a family of eight children, and I, to this day, remember the
day when my little sister, the last, came home from the hospital. It
was traumatic and never left my memory because as you can imagine
at that moment I was displaced.
Mrs. Easton: Absolutely.
Judge Farrell: In the affections of my mother.
Mrs. Easton: Oh dear.
Judge Farrell: And never got over it. I spent most of my, all of my childhood in the
Oranges, West Orange New Jersey, which is part of Essex County. I
went to high school locally, in a private Catholic school. I went to a
college out in Indiana, Notre Dame.
Mrs. Easton: I’ve heard of it.
Judge Farrell: You’ve heard of it? They once upon a time had a good football team,
so that’s why you may have heard of it. And, when I came back from
college to the East, I decided I would wander around for seven or eight
years, in my twenties, and I spent a good deal of time in Europe and so
forth. We can talk a lot about that.
Mrs. Easton: I’d like to.
Judge Farrell: Yeah and eventually way down the road toward the end of the Sixties,
I came to Washington D.C., we’ll talk about what brought me here,
where I met my first wife, who told me I should change careers. I was
teaching then, she was also teaching. She told me I was a terrible
teacher, I’ll tell you why. And she suggested I do something else if I
was going to support her in the way she was accustomed to being
supported. And so I went to law school then, night school, while I was
still the chairman of the English Department at a prep school. And
that kind of started my legal career and the rest is what we have here, a
number of steps along the way, until finally they put me out to pasture
as a semi-retired judge.
Mrs. Easton: They keep you very busy as a “semi-retired judge,” by all reports.
Judge Farrell: Thank you.
Mrs. Easton: Let’s go back to Essex, New Jersey and talk about your family. What
did your parents do?
Judge Farrell: My father was a newspaper editor for the Newark Evening News,
which at the time was one of the, I think, premier evening newspapers,
in the East anyway. There were such things as evening newspapers
then, there are no longer, really, but this one was in Newark, New
Jersey and he had been with them for twenty or thirty years. My
mother was a ”domestic engineer,” a stay-at-home mom who had a
hell of a time, excuse me, raising eight children, including myself, five
girls and three boys. It was your kind of normal, large, secondgeneration or third-generation immigrant family, Irish-Americans:
Large families, a lot of kids running around. It was somehow rather
easier then; I should say it’s never easy to raise eight children, but for
my mother it was somewhat easier than it would be today because the
kids just had the neighborhood to themselves, the mother didn’t have
to worry about them, we were out playing all the time with one another
or our friends. I grew up in a very conventional, middle class
existence in West Orange New Jersey. My father was not wealthy by
any means, newspaper people have never been paid well, at least other
than the owners. But we were reasonably well off. He could afford to,
for example, get all of the girls braces on their teeth, because that was
very important in those days, in the Thirties and Forties, you can
imagine why: to make them presentable. The boys, on the other hand,
got no braces; I didn’t get braces, which my dentist keeps telling me I
should have had years ago. On the other hand, the boys got—and this
is kind of a sad commentary in a way—the boys got first dibs at going
to college. In that time, the Thirties and Forties and into the Fifties,
unless a girl in the family showed some promise academically, she was
kind of nudged in the direction of two-year programs. Remember they
used to have things like secretarial school? A lot of friends of the
family used to come down to Marymount in Arlington which was then
a two-year girls’ school. We used to call them “finishing schools,” I
don’t know quite what they were. But because the parents could
afford those, it was two years for the girls in the family, whereas for
the boys it was expected you’d have to do four years. This was in
order for you to catch the right mate, that kind of thing. This sounds
like another century, but it wasn’t so long ago. So that’s the kind of
upbringing we had, it was very conventional. It was customary then
for children of Catholic families, immigrant families to go to public
schools for the first seven or eight grades, but then when you reached
an age where you started thinking about the other sex, for example,
and marriage might come down the road some years later, it was kind
of thought important that you maybe shift over to Catholic school.
Plus you were at an age where you were starting to get ideas of your
own and the parents wanted to be sure they kept you on the straight
and narrow. So after eighth or ninth grade they sent me to a
preparatory school in South Orange, New Jersey, Seton Hall
Preparatory School, it’s associated with what is Seton Hall University.
Believe it or not, this will be shocking to you, I used to hitchhike every
day about seven or eight miles from home as a high school student to
my high school classes. You could do it in those days, safely, and it
was a thrill, it was an adventure. You can’t believe it nowadays that
that would have occurred but it was the case.
Mrs. Easton: Did you hitchhike home too?
Judge Farrell: Yes, hitchhiked home, occasionally I would get a ride part way and
then get a bus, but normally. My high school career, four years, was
interesting, kind of uneventful. I will say I was an ordinary student,
probably better than average student, because I dutifully did what I
was told to do and studied hard. I was also a sports person at the time,
because my older brothers were sports people. I played basketball in
high school. And occasionally my father would wonder why I was
spending so much time practicing basketball, he didn’t really think I
had much future there, and not enough time on the books. But I rather
disagreed with him, I thought the basketball was more important then.
I graduated from high school in 1956. This is during the Eisenhower
administration, and we can talk more about that because it has
something to do with whether or why not, why I wasn’t really
interested in being a lawyer at that time.
Mrs. Easton: Well, I definitely want to know that. But I’m interested in just a
couple more things about your high school career. Were on the
school’s varsity basketball team?
Judge Farrell: I was on the varsity basketball team, I was All-Essex County in my
senior year. I was quite a jock. Because as you know, back in those
days, white men did not have to jump, (laughter) in order to be good
basketball players. We couldn’t jump, but the game was different and
you didn’t have to be able to jump and you could still kind of
Mrs. Easton: What position did you play?
Judge Farrell: I was the kind of the center under the old way they used to play
basketball, because I was about six foot one or two, still growing, and I
sort of fit into that position even though I was skinny. I was not
muscular, nobody was in those days. Very few people were. It was
fascinating, although as I look back, it was in some ways very sad,
because most of the teams we would play in high school were
suburban white basketball teams. Occasionally, we would play against
the African American black kids from Newark or Southside Newark or
Eastside or Orange, and it was—it reflected the segregation of the
times. Not necessarily de jure segregation but de facto segregation in
neighborhood patterns. And the truth of the matter is almost every
time we ran up against the good black basketball teams from the inner
city, they beat the heck out of us because they could jump (laughter)
and they could shoot and they were good! And some of those fellows
who I got to know in those games went on to become outstanding
African American basketball players in college and so forth. I never
kept in touch with them, but I knew them at the time and I was proud
to know them and they succeeded in basketball, far better than I ever
did. But I had some distinction at the time: I was recognized as a
fairly good shot, I could shoot reasonably well.
The result of this is that I got a couple of scholarship offers. One of
them was from William and Mary down here in Virginia. And I very
much wanted to go there, first because it was an honor to have been
offered a scholarship there and I thought maybe I should do it. I knew
about it from friends, it’s a good small school at the time. My father
would have nothing to do with that, he said “I’m not sending you off
to some secular school where you will lose the one and only true
apostolic faith, you’re going to Notre Dame in Indiana.” I’ve known
Notre Dame from childhood as a football place and of course I liked
them, but I really didn’t want to go to Indiana. I had never been west
of probably Philadelphia. (Laughter.) And he said, “You’re going out
there.” Now Notre Dame did not offer me a basketball scholarship,
and I thought it would be totally demoralizing to go there without a
scholarship because even if they let me on the team, I’d be considered
a second-class basketball player. They used to call them “walk-ons,”
people who were not given scholarships but would try out for the team
and so forth. So I didn’t go to William and Mary, I went to Notre
That gets us into my college experience but maybe, what else do we
need to talk about regarding my high school? Not really much. I was
a reasonably good student, I think I was, I think this was generally
true, even in college and after college, I matured intellectually very
slowly. It may have been a result of the fact that, you know, my
parents really didn’t have the time with eight children to spend a lot of
time with each boy or girl reading to them, reading with them, testing
them. We weren’t a family like, oh I always think of this as an
extreme example, the James family, Henry James and William James,
the New Englanders [The Bostonians] and so forth, whose father was a
theologian philosopher. Every night the father kind of made them
perform at the dinner table, they had to recite poetry, they had to
answer philosophical questions, they had to do everything. None of
that at our table: My father just wanted to know, basically, did you
behave today? So I dutifully went about what I was required to do in
high school and I studied and learned my lessons; education then was
very rote, you basically memorized facts and so forth.
Mrs. Easton: Did you have any favorite subjects in high school?
Judge Farrell: Not at the time. It was all a matter of just pleasing my parents by
doing as best as I could with my grades. I had never any gift in the
sciences, I don’t know why that was. Nobody in the family had a gift
in the sciences; I don’t think it’s genetic, I think it’s simply the fact
that my parents knew nothing about the sciences, they weren’t
involved in that, or in math. There was also a cultural kind of thing
then back in the Forties—the fear that somehow the sciences could
lead you astray from the proper path of religion and things like that.
This was a pervasive kind of cultural thing in the Northeast in
immigrant communities. And that’s one reason why historically some
of the greatest lawyers, for example, have come from the immigrant
communities, like the Irish and so forth. But very few physicists,
chemists, biologists, scientists, mathematicians generally. I think that
has been overcome greatly now, but that was the kind of thing back
then. So my parents didn’t really—it didn’t bother them too much if I
got B’s or a C+ in math, as long as I got B’s and A’s in History,
English and things like that, and in Latin.
Mrs. Easton: Clearly, your father was literate and attuned, and the newspaper editor
is somebody who is probably going to be appreciating the liberal arts
Judge Farrell: Exactly, exactly. He was—his obsession, not only his profession, his
obsession was politics. He came from, in a way, a political family.
His father had grown up in Trenton, New Jersey, as a—not a lawyer,
but as a kind of a political know-it-all and do-it-all who knew the
legislative system of the state of New Jersey intimately, so much so
that when Woodrow Wilson became governor of New Jersey, fresh out
of being president of Princeton, Wilson hired my father’s father as
what they called a “secretary” back then, his personal secretary. For
the four or five years when Wilson was governor, my father’s father
was his right hand man, which basically meant showing him how the
legislature works, so that he could get along with those fools over in
the state house. Wilson was a very patrician guy and it was hard for
him to kind of press the flesh with grubby politicos who had come up
though the political system in the state house, and my father’s father
was kind of a mediator with that.
Mrs. Easton: Now had your father’s father immigrated himself?
Judge Farrell: His parents had immigrated, so it’s kind of a second, I’m—
Mrs. Easton: So your grandparents—
Judge Farrell: My grandparents—
Mrs. Easton: Or your great-grandparents?
Judge Farrell: My great-grandparents immigrated in the 1860s or so, at the time of
the Potato Famine and everything else in Ireland. And they all—and
they settled in the North Jersey area, mostly in and around Newark,
New Jersey, and then down into Trenton, particularly on my mother’s
side. And it was all very ethnic, and they—for a number of
generations, they lived in this tight little world of the people that they
knew best and feared and disliked any other ethnic group. You know,
this was kind of the way it was.
Mrs. Easton: Right, yeah. Same in my mother’s extended family. You know, not
the Italians. (Laughter.) Or whatever.
Judge Farrell: It was amazing as I look back, how my parents could share these
subtle distinctions of class, not to mention race, goodness, but even
class. So that even among the Irish, there are these gradations.
Mrs. Easton: Oh.
Judge Farrell: There were the—there were the “lace curtain Irish.” They were the
really snooty ones, and my mother was proud she was not one of them.
Mrs. Easton: Okay.
Judge Farrell: I don’t know where that comes from. They had lace curtains on their
lovely homes. And then there were the “shanty Irish” at the other
extreme. You can imagine what that is.
Mrs. Easton: Okay.
Judge Farrell: They kind of lived down the hill—because there are a series of hills
going out from Newark—
Mrs. Easton: So literally—
Judge Farrell: Literally, in New Jersey out toward the Delaware Valley. And
depending on what kind of status you had reached, how reasonably
successful you were, you were able to move up one hill, over to
another hill. (Laughs.) This is kind of crazy. So that it became easy
to sniff at the poorer folks, including the poorer Irish who hadn’t made
it up the hill and still lived down in the valley. And of course, the
Italians, they lived down in Orange.
Mrs. Easton: Right.
Judge Farrell: They haven’t even made it to the valley, you know. But this was the
kind of things you grew up with and you took for granted. And when
you look back at it, you say, “Oh, my Lord, bless them, but uh—”
Mrs. Easton: I’m curious, if you know, how your father’s father, as a child of
immigrants, got so politically knowledgeable and connected.
Judge Farrell: I don’t know in detail, but I suspect what happened was that he was—
probably grew up in and around the Newark area, somehow or other
migrated down to the state capitol, which was Trenton. Probably
began at a very early age, right out of high school, which is all
anybody ever attended then, generally. Probably became something
like a page boy or something in one of the state house offices down
there. Learned the trade, learned the mechanics, never went on to any
more formal education, but probably apprenticed in a number of law
firms or elsewhere, but never became a lawyer. And just learned the
political system at the state level and made a kind of a career out of it.
You know, nobody asked him, “Where’s your Ph.D.? Where’s your
law degree?” It was basically, you just—if you knew your way
around, if you were a combination of being a nice person who got
along, but also somebody who was intelligent enough to know how to
get around and operate in a legislative milieu like that, you could
succeed. And he succeeded, within limitations, and did a pretty good
Mrs. Easton: Did he move on with Wilson through Wilson’s career?
Judge Farrell: I don’t know what happened after that. I mean, a few years ago when
I kind of gave a little eulogy for my oldest brother when he died, I did
just a little research, but my little speech kind of ended with Wilson
passing on to the White House. And obviously, my grandfather didn’t
go with him. He stayed in Jersey and that became—that’s all I knew
about him. In the meantime, though, my father—I don’t know really
what, other than happenstance, caused him to gravitate toward the
newspaper business. And he began, I think, with the Newark Evening
News, the paper he ended up with. He began with them in the early
1900s, maybe 1915. He was born right at the turn of the century. He
probably began with the newspaper as what they called a cub
reporter—the junior-most kind of person who went out and, you know,
covered social events in the neighborhood and reported on them and so
forth. He was a reporter for some time—five, ten, fifteen years or
so—then went into management, became the assistant editor, associate
editor, and was managing editor at the time he retired in 1959. So it
was his entire career. And it was very interesting for us, not only
because he would come home—he worked incredibly hard, he used to,
basically, because they had a Sunday paper and a weekly paper, and he
was managing editor of both, so he was always there. But he would
come home with these fascinating stories about people they had
interviewed and so forth. So it was an interesting thing. It also made
an interesting childhood for me in a way, although I think I appreciate
it more now than I did before, because my father acquired an
enormous number of friends in New Jersey politics and in New Jersey
law and things like that. In fact, my brother—one of my brothers used
to refer to it as the “Irish mafia” that got together every Friday night at
the house of one or more of these people for poker games.
Mrs. Easton: Ahhhhh.
Judge Farrell: So my father, you know, once a month, or once every six weeks or so,
would have a Friday evening poker game with some fascinating
people. And when I tell people this, they say, they don’t understand
why I didn’t acquire a burning desire to become a lawyer, because four
or five of the people in this revolving poker game were lawyers and
judges, in this little “Irish mafia”—some people who in later years, I
came to recognize as pretty good jurists in the state of New Jersey.
One of them was John J. Francis, whom I got to know as a kid, but
only as a kid. He was then [later] on the New Jersey Supreme Court
and was very influential, and indeed—I realized later on—was the
author of one of the first major products liability cases, Henningsen v.
Bloomfield Motors [32 N.J. 358, 161 A.2d 69 (N.J. 1960)] was a
famous strict liability and tort case. And there were others. One, John
Mulligan [William Hughes Mulligan], went on to the Second Circuit
some years later. And these people were around the house quite a bit,
you know, for the poker games, and they would pat me on the head
and say, “law.” But somehow or other, I never ingested anything from
these contacts that made me say, “Gee, I wanna be a judge or a
lawyer.” It often has to do with the kind of influences you undergo
after your earliest years, that is, like when you get into college: Who
are the teachers in college who influence you most, who you took as
your models, who you liked most. That often steers you in
directions—including blind alleys, in my case. But, so, there was
never an early desire to practice law, even though there was a lot of
law around the house. There was also very little interest in going into
the newspaper business because my father could see, even beginning
in the early Fifties, that the newspaper business, particularly the
evening newspaper business, was becoming a dead end—and we can
talk more about that in time. So he used to come home and say, “None
of my kids is going to be a newspaperman. There’s just no future
Mrs. Easton: So that wasn’t encouraged?
Judge Farrell: That was not encouraged, no. But our parents, I must say, they
basically did not steer us in any particular direction. They felt that it
was their duty, their God-given duty, to send their children as best they
can, particularly the boys, to the best schools that they could afford,
and then let the people in the colleges steer them in the right direction
or train them to do something. And I think eventually—it’s kind of
sad in a way, but it’s the fact—I became kind of the black sheep of the
eight because, somehow or other they mistakenly came to view me as
kind of ‘the intellectual one” or at least, let’s say, the perennial student
among them. And that indeed was part of my life in the Sixties,
wandering around and so forth, whereas my other siblings, my two
brothers and sisters, all of them got married very early, reasonably
early, dutifully went to work for the bank or in a training program for
some company. Higher education, advanced degrees were not
something any of them really wanted or found themselves pursuing.
Mrs. Easton: Now did your brothers go to Seton Hall Prep?
Judge Farrell: They all went there. It was the local place, the Catholic school. There
were others, but it was the one that my parents somehow or other
Mrs. Easton: And where did they go to college?
Judge Farrell: Umm, well, one of them, Richard, my nearest next, went—came down
to Georgetown back in the Fifties. Georgetown was a very different
school then. It was a very parochial kind of small Catholic college
Mrs. Easton: It’s hard to imagine, but like—
Judge Farrell: Hard to imagine. A very different place. It was not academically on
anyone’s radar screen. He came down there, but he had a little
problem, partly because of basketball. Georgetown was also a party
school. (Laughter.) He tried to combine basketball—he was on the
team—he tried to combine basketball with partying, got suspended for
too much partying. My father yanked him out of there and made him
finish up at Seton Hall College back in New Jersey, at night school.
My older brother, Jack, continuing the trend, the Catholic education
trend, went to Holy Cross College, which is up in Worcester,
Massachusetts, and a small school, I think it’s as small now as it was
then. It had a good basketball team. He played some basketball there
but was never outstanding. Got married fairly early, went into the
Army at the time of Korea, married young, and went into business, and
spent the rest of his life in the shipping business—stevedoring business
and so forth—a very different career path from mine in some ways but
a man whom, you know, I always admired.
Mrs. Easton: What did Richard do?
Judge Farrell: Richard had, was in—a very interesting career, at least in the sense
that he’s made me very proud. He struggled. He had a lot of problems
in his twenties and Thirties, he really didn’t know what he wanted to
do. I think he had some psychological problems at a time when people
didn’t really have the magic fix for psychological problems. But
somehow or other he found his way into social work. And he ended
up having a career of some forty years with New York City Social
Services, a wonderful organization. I don’t know what it’s exactly
called now. But he rose into management, out in Long Island and in
Brooklyn and so forth, in social work. Went on got his master’s degree
at night in social work, so he did do advanced education. And one of
my proud moments about twenty years ago before he died—he died
young, at age 61—was to go up to New York for a ceremony in which
Mayor David Dinkins, then mayor of New York, presented Richard—
Dick, we called him—with an award, only one of five people awarded
from the whole city’s social work network, for longevity and for
service, for outstanding service. So, he found his niche there. And,
you know, I always felt that one proof that life isn’t really fair is that
this guy killed himself for so many years doing this job for meager
pay, he was looking forward to being able to retire and have a nice life
with his wife after that and, of course, he didn’t make it because of
cancer. But that’s the way it is. But he had a good life.
Mrs. Easton: And is Jack still alive?
Judge Farrell: No, Jack died about seven or eight years ago. He died at age 71.
Mrs. Easton: And how about your sisters? There any of those left?
Judge Farrell: I have two left. I lost some. There was in the family apparently some
form of cancer associated with women more than men, and several of
them succumbed to that. But two of them remain. In fact, I just went
up to see them this last weekend in New Jersey. They live on the New
Jersey shore, in a town called Manasquan. One is eighty seven. The
other one is my youngest—the one I was insanely jealous of when she
came from the hospital.
Mrs. Easton: Right.
Judge Farrell: She’s four years younger than I am. And I hadn’t seen them in a
while. I got a chance to see them.
Mrs. Easton: Were they affected by [Hurricane] Sandy?
Judge Farrell: They weren’t personally, but everybody they know was, in one way or
another. They did not lose property, because they live back from the
coast. But I was astonished how—probably not really astonished, I
shouldn’t say—to see how successfully this coastal community, some
of them anyway, have rebuilt. And the reason it’s not so astonishing is
because it’s an enormous source of income for those communities, so
the money is going to be found to build the boardwalks over again, to
pump new sand onto the beaches and make it nice for the summer
folks. And they’ve done a good job of it.
Mrs. Easton: Do your sisters live together or are they just in the same area?
Judge Farrell: In the same area with their hordes of grandchildren now. It’s a very
large extended family. I mean, I must have fifty or sixty nieces and
nephews and by now probably, I don’t know, probably thirty, forty,
fifty grandnieces and nephews. And occasionally, they drop by down
in Washington and I don’t even know who they are. (Laughs.)
Mrs. Easton: I can imagine. Do you all ever gather?
Judge Farrell: Rarely these days. Not so much as we used to. My older brother was
kind of the majordomo of these kind—organizing these kind of social
events, family reunions. And, of course, the, you know, as the
generations grow up, they scatter around the country, so it’s not easy
to get them together. But I think the folks who have continued to live
up in New Jersey stay together more often than those of us who’ve
moved away. I mean, I’ve lived more than half my life in Washington
now. But I do get home from time to time. It’s nice to get into the
New Jersey ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and do some swimming.
Mrs. Easton: Absolutely. Well, I’m interested if there were—you mentioned this
wonderful, this “Irish mafia” that gathered in your home regularly.
But I’d like to know to the extent that you did have people that were
influences on you early. Were any of your father’s friends, or teachers
at school, or a priest—anybody else?
Judge Farrell: I have to say—maybe it was a defect in my personality. I was not
really influenced—I was probably influenced unconsciously by an
enormous number of people, but nobody stands out at the high school
level and earlier than that as being an extraordinary influence on me. I
think probably the strongest influence was simply my father. I mean,
to the extent that a father who worked six days a week, you know, with
his nose to the grindstone, is a role model for people in the way of
making something out of yourself. I suppose that I internalized that in
some way, and it made me—you know, maybe it was only in those
days that you were scared of disappointing your parents. It wasn’t so
much that you saw yourself as somebody who was special and could
be special, but you didn’t want to disappoint your folks. That was an
important thing back then—probably still is now with children.
Mrs. Easton: Sure. It’s hard to imagine that your mom had any time for things other
Judge Farrell: She really didn’t. She had her social network. They would play
bridge or something else. There was a time when my father and she
belonged to a local golf country club. Those things were more
affordable then than they are now. I think they gave that up after a
while. But her life was basically her children. And her grandchildren,
when they came along. And in her last years—my father retired quite
early, he retired at fifty-nine. He was forced to retire, and we can go
into that—it’s nothing of major importance, but it’s interesting—when
I was still in college. I was a junior in college in 1959 when he was
forced into retirement, partly because of the change in the newspaper
business, and I will explain that in a minute. And he would have been
fifty-nine, my mother would have been fifty-four. My father died at
age eighty, but the next twenty years between fifty-nine and eighty
were very difficult for him and therefore very difficult for my mother.
He really couldn’t find anything else that he was suited for in the way
of work. He tried a number of things, politics and so forth, and my
mother was with him all the way—encouraging him but also pushing
him. You know, there is a little bit of truth in every stereotype, and
one of the stereotypes is about Irish mothers and wives who love their
spouses dearly, but when they have the sense that their spouse is kind
of failing in some way to be the perfect person, they’re not always the
most charitable people in the world. And my mother adored my
father, but in his weaknesses—and it also had to do with alcohol
consumption eventually—it was very difficult for her to, you know,
twenty-four hours a day, to support him, rather than finding fault with
him part of the time. So, his last twenty years were not the most
happy, although he had the family and moved various places—did
various things. They traveled. That was about it.
But, you know, when you’ve been in a business like the newspaper
business for your whole adult life, and you retire young, at least at that
time it was very difficult to venture into something else. He didn’t
know what else to do with himself. He wasn’t the kind of person who
had books in him to write. He wasn’t that kind of a newspaperman.
He was basically a managing editor, an editor of other people’s
writing. So my mother, I think, pushed him in that direction, to try to
write a couple of books on people he’d known. It never worked. He
worked as secretary, so to speak, or principal assistant for one or two
political candidates in New Jersey running for governor. They were
short-term jobs. And I think boredom and other things basically made
his last twenty years not terribly happy, although he did live to age
eighty. And my mother was basically, as I said, in those twenty years,
helping to take care of him—had a series of operations and things like
that. But I think, on the whole, they looked back at the end of their
time and said, “We did what we were put on this Earth to do. We did
it very well. We raised kids who by and large have made something of
themselves and, you know, what more could anyone ask of us?”
Mrs. Easton: Tell me about the circumstances of your dad’s forced retirement.
Judge Farrell: It was the newspaper business. He was the managing editor, not the
editor-in-chief. The whole editorial staff was basically forced out.
There were a number of reasons, partly because the owners of the
newspaper, the Newark Evening News, were a German family going
back several generations who had struck it rich in something different,
and that was the newspaper recycling business. This was the very
beginning of it, where you took old newspapers, you recycled them,
you produced new, useable newsprint. Until then, all the of the
newsprint had to come from Quebec Province, you know—
Mrs. Easton: From forests—
Judge Farrell: Yeah, from forests. The Scudders was their name, S-c-u-d-d-e-r-s.
They discovered, and I think patented, one of the first processes for
taking old newspaper, de-inking it, and converting it to reusable paper.
They struck it rich with that, as I say, and at the same time—maybe as
a result—sort of lost interest in the newspaper side of the enterprise,
the actual print. That coincided with the fact that, as I suggested
before, evening newspapers were dying. And they were dying for a
number of reasons; books have been written about it. One of the
reasons, of course, is you had the beginnings in around 1960 of
urban—not flight, that was later on—but slow urban move out into the
suburbs, largely by white people, growing populations out in the
suburbs. Most of the audience, the readership for evening newspapers,
lived out there. The problem was with increased congestion around
cities—this was not just in Newark, but a hundred other cities—it took
a long time, increasingly, to get the trucks out there in the evening to
get the newspaper. By the time you got them out there to the
household, Walter Cronkite was on TV, and people got their news
from TV, and said, “Who needs the paper?” Thus the demise of
evening newspapers. It was a slow process, but it was inexorable.
Habits changed—people—the morning newspaper when I was a child
and grew up was—nobody really paid too much attention to it. You
didn’t read it. You waited for the evening news because then you got
that day’s news and so forth.
But to kind of exemplify the situation, there was a morning newspaper
in Newark called the Newark Star-Ledger. As the Newark Evening
News declined, withered away, the morning newspaper, the Newark
Star-Ledger, grew in size and grew in fortune. It was sold to a man by
the name of Samuel Newhouse [Samuel Irving Newhouse Sr., founder
of Advance Publication], who became one of the real moguls of
morning newspapers in the nation for a while. The Newhouse chain
still exists I think. These were a number of reasons, in combination,
why the Scudder family, which owned the Newark Evening News,
wanted to make some dramatic change. My father always thought that
the reason they basically canned the entire editorial staff was that they
wanted to go more tabloid. They wanted to go more like the New York
Daily News, the New York Post, the tabloid papers, big headlines,
sensational stuff, and my father resisted that tooth and nail because he
thought newspapers should be honorable and should report the news
and not scandalize and sensationalize. I don’t know how much truth
there was in that. He and the people in the editorial board were, I
think, became progressively estranged from the owners, and finally the
owners just decided, “We’re just gonna do something new.” Well, I
mean, as it turned out, five years after they basically fired the editorial
staff, the paper closed. So, it was the writing on the wall.
Mrs. Easton: Right.
Judge Farrell: But as I have—
Mrs. Easton: Well, you were at Notre Dame.
Judge Farrell: I’m at Notre Dame as an undergraduate.
Mrs. Easton: Was it a financial hardship for your tuition?
Judge Farrell: Well, you know, tuitions were not high in the Fifties. I don’t
remember what they were, but I think my father had just saved and put
it away. Looking back at it, I kind of regret that I didn’t seek financial
aid out of there. While I was playing basketball, I probably could have
gotten a little bit of assistance. I never did. But he never complained
about it. He felt that he could go ahead and do it. That was never a
thing that weighed on me—on my mind. And possibly because my
older brother had already finished college—my oldest brother. So it
was only one at a time. And as I said, the girls didn’t cost him too
much because they were in secretarial school or out elsewhere—
nursing school, things like that. And so that was not a problem.
Mrs. Easton: So you go off to Notre Dame, and—you had not been to Indiana?
Judge Farrell: No, I had never been west of Philadelphia. (Laughter) As I said, I
wanted to go down to Virginia because I had heard of William and
Mary, I knew somebody that had gone there and thought it would be
nice. And I thought I could play basketball down there and be
respected and get a decent education. Anyway, I went to Notre Dame.
I saluted and I went. And it was, I think, probably a good experience
for me. I was influenced there by some—as we all are—by a few
professors who may have steered me in the wrong direction ultimately,
but I was hugely impressed with their credentials and with their
abilities and they sounded like very smart people. And several of them
thought that I had something of a gift for being able to express myself
in writing. I was in the humanities. I majored in English. I took a few
obligatory science courses. I’m sure I did terribly in the math and had
really no interest in science. So I became interested in literature, and a
little bit of history, and some languages. But still I would say, and this
is in keeping with what I mentioned earlier, that I was kind of a slow
maturer intellectually. I think college for me, in the main, at least
consciously, was a continuation of the high school experience of being
dutiful, going to all of your classes, studying as hard you could, doing
what most of the rote learning you could, trying in your—particularly
in the English courses, the literature courses—to impress good
teachers by being able to read literature with a little bit of
sophistication and express my thoughts and write compositions. And I
did very well.
I graduated, I guess, magna cum laude, not the highest thing but
magna cum laude. Notre Dame was a small school of seven or eight
or nine thousand people. It had no academic reputation at the time.
Certainly nothing comparable to the Ivies. Nonetheless, it was a
stimulating place. It enjoyed a better reputation I think in the Middle
West than it did in the East academically. In football, I think it had a
good reputation everywhere, although they had four years of losing
sports when I was out there. (Laughs.) Sorry about that. So, I
enjoyed it. I think that I probably got a lot out of it. But I think it was,
in a sense, more of the same thing that high school was of people
disciplining me to—to do my assignments and try to succeed in them
and send home good report cards to my parents and make them proud
of me. And, looking back at it, I want to be very generous and fair to
my alma mater, and I suppose it had a very good influence on me in a
lot of ways I probably couldn’t consciously articulate. But I don’t
look at it as a place that really awakened in me—kind of enkindled in
me—some kind of passion for ideas. Maybe it was the beginning and
I just don’t recognize it. These kind of things came a little later, I
suppose, to the extent they came at all. And if people tell me, “Do you
regret having gone to Notre Dame?” as opposed to, say, Harvard or
Yale or Princeton—Princeton, New Jersey, my response is often, “I
don’t know whether I could have gotten into those schools, coming
from a not very distinguished small Catholic school with pretty good
grades,” but even if so, I don’t know whether I had the maturity at the
time, maybe simply from my upbringing, to do well at a tier one
college. Although I always add to that saying, “In a way, I regret that I
never had the chance.” But, nonetheless, it—I had a pretty good
record out there, and looking back at it, I made some friends. I have
not kept very close to that college over the years. And that may be
simply a reflection of the fact, while the school tried to make a good
person out of me and a bright young man, they succeeded, but not
overwhelmingly. The result was, I think, a lot of wandering around
after college before I found my feet.
Mrs. Easton: Right. I want to hear about—how did you get to Indiana? Did you
drive all the way out there?
Judge Farrell: You know, it was a combination of taking the train and hitchhiking.
Mrs. Easton: Oh my gosh.
Judge Farrell: Every Christmas for four years, I would hitchhike home on the Indiana
Turnpike, the Ohio Turnpike, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, right into
Newark. And you know, nobody ever worried about anything at the
time. The world has shifted seismically since then. I didn’t hitchhike
out too often, probably because my parents were nervous enough
about it that they would give me the money, put me on the train. And
maybe once they drove out there, I don’t know. But for four years,
two or three times a year, I would hitchhike home, and you know, it
was—it wasn’t considered hard. It was just a nuisance of a night. You
know, overnight, basically, to do it.
Mrs. Easton: Well, when you got to West Bend for the first time? I mean—
Judge Farrell: South Bend.
Mrs. Easton: South Bend.
Mrs. Easton: So, what was your impression? I mean, how did it strike you coming
from New Jersey to—
Judge Farrell: Well, I had never been on a college campus before, except I had gone
down to U Penn on a couple of occasions because I had a brother-inlaw who was at U Penn. I’d gone down and gone to one of his
fraternity parties. And I’m surprised I didn’t say to myself after the
fraternity party, “U Penn is the place for me.” My father would not
have sent me there. (Both laugh.) But I knew nothing about what
colleges were. I’d seen the Seton Hall college campus but it was
basically a commuter school. Notre Dame was this little enclave—
five, six, seven thousand students in a gritty, little industrial town,
South Bend, Indiana, where they made Studebakers. Remember the
Studebaker? (Laughs.) And I wasn’t shocked because, you know, you
were kind of—you were enfolded. You were welcomed into the
bosom of the school, and you were nurtured to the extent that you
could be nurtured without your parents around. You were there with a
thousand other beginners who were in the same boat. Sort of like
anyone else’s college experience. It—I wasn’t really homesick that
Mrs. Easton: Okay.
Judge Farrell: And that maybe in a way is a product of the fact that as one of eight
children you never really were mothered and cushioned and spoiled in
the way that you might be if you’re only, the only child or so. So
going away was not a difficult experience for me. And besides, right
from the get-go you were in class doing your work to get good grades
and impress your parents. You didn’t have a lot of time to feel
Mrs. Easton: So did you try to walk on? Did you walk on?
Judge Farrell: I walked on. Oh my goodness, you get me into my basketball
experience—one of the more dismal things in my career. (Both
laugh.) I walked—my first and second year, I did not play. Of course,
freshman and sophomore, you didn’t—you didn’t play in sophomore
year unless you were very good, and I wasn’t that good. Junior year, I
tried out. They had learned a little bit about me from gymnasium play
in the second year. I tried out in my junior year and I made the team.
And they obviously saw something in my game that they liked because
in the first game of the season, here’s this walk-on guy from New
Jersey, they put me in toward the end of the game, we were playing an
easy team and we were winning by quite a bit, and I distinguished
myself right off the bat—I’m forewarning you now, my narrative of
my college basketball experience is going to be very short, so I don’t
want you nodding off.
Mrs. Easton: (Laughs.) Okay.
Judge Farrell: And we’re not gonna revisit it.
Mrs. Easton: (Laughs.)
Judge Farrell: So, the first game of the season, they put me in and I threw up four
shots—they called them “jump shots.” This “jump shot” was a fairly
new thing then where you actually lifted yourself off the ground and
shot. I could tell you an hour’s worth of story about old basketball but
I won’t. And I made four in a row! And I was dazzling—I dazzled
them, and the next morning the South Bend Tribune had a very
flattering story about this skinny guy from New Jersey who has quite a
wicked jump shot.
Mrs. Easton: (Laughs.)
Judge Farrell: (Clears throat.) Boy, did that go to my head. Well, anyway, the next
game came along against a really good team, Northwestern, from
Chicago—Evanston— and you can kind of imagine what happened
there. They put me in because we were losing, badly, and they thought
that, uh, that Mickey Farrell from New Jersey was gonna turn things
around. Well, Mickey Farrell threw up about three shots or four shots,
and probably none of them went near the basket. (Interviewer laughs.)
I was benched after that for the next five games, the coach was trying
out other things, and, he put me back in about the eighth or ninth
game, and to be charitable to myself I didn’t distinguish myself, and
that kind of ended my career for the year. I warmed the bench. Good
preparation for being a judge—
Mrs. Easton: (Laughs.)
Judge Farrell: —for the rest of the season. In my senior year I was so enthralled to
my English mentor-professor and was writing what they called a
“senior thesis” that I decided I wasn’t gonna go out for the team
because I knew I’d be warming the bench, and I didn’t want to put up
with it—I didn’t think I could do justice to both. And I wasn’t getting
a scholarship, so, who needed it. So my career was one year in my
junior year, and I was a flash in the pan.
Mrs. Easton: For two spectacular games.
Judge Farrell: Well, one spectacular game positively, one spectacular negatively.
But nonetheless, the interesting thing is, that year, the junior year, we
had been ranked nationally to be among the top ten teams, but we
ended up with a terrible record. Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun
because I loved the road trips, you know, we would go around the
country and play in these different colleges and go out partying at
night, and anyway, a lot of fun. That was my basketball career, and,
uh, many people—I have a picture in my office and I’m happy to show
it to everybody. All the young law clerks come through, and they say,
“Gee, you looked like that then? You had such short pants!”
“Yeah, well, that’s the way—”
“You must have been good, Judge!”
“Yeah, well, we’ll skip the rest.”
(Both laugh.) In other words, college was an experience for me where
I think I was still kind of enslaved to sports, particularly basketball,
because I played it in high school and I grew up in a family that loved
sports, but I think I was gradually weaning myself from that because I
recognized my limitations, and I was starting to realize, through the
influence of some good professors, that there are a hell of a lot of other
things in life that are more important, and more interesting, and more
human, than being able to throw up a basketball. And I probably
didn’t realize it at the time, but the school did, I think, have that effect
of ultimately persuading me that life had much bigger challenges than
trying to be an All-American basketball player.
Mrs. Easton: Wow.
Judge Farrell: (Laughs.)
Mrs. Easton: Well, this may be a good stopping point—
Judge Farrell: Yeah, I don’t want to take your time because (speaking at same time)
No, we could go on forever, but I think you—you’ve more than done
your duty for today.
Mrs. Easton: Oh, I’ve just enjoyed this so very much. I’ll go ahead and turn off the
recorder. [Brief break in the recording] so we don’t miss any of this.
Judge Farrell: Yeah, back in that era, and this is—goes together with people’s
question to me of “Well, why weren’t you interested in the law?
When did you become interested in law?” and so forth. It was a very
different era then because, you recall, this was the sleepy Fifties, late
Fifties. This was before civil rights, this was before the Kennedy
assassination, this was before the Warren Court and the great decisions
in criminal jurisprudence, the kinds of things that really whetted the
appetite for young people to go into law. And then of course by the
time—and this is the sad thing from my point of view, and we’ll talk
about that more—by the late Sixties when Vietnam came along, the
kinds of things that I had been pursuing in graduate work, like English,
philosophy, languages—I came to love languages, some anyway—had
lost all of their currency in the colleges. Those departments were
downsizing because everything was politics, with the result that by the
early Seventies the best and the brightest in the humanities, where did
they go? They went to law school. And in the Fifties that was
unheard of. There were great people who went to law school in the
Fifties and Sixties, but the number of good law schools you could
count on two hands back then. And there were reasons for that. It was
a cultural thing. My little thesis is that it all started with Sputnik, but
we’ll talk more about that.
Mrs. Easton: I do want to hear more about that because that’s intriguing, because I
would have—I thought you were going towards that everything was
going, rather than toward politics, toward science—(speaking at the
Judge Farrell: You would think, but the interesting thing is that it’s the kind of
American way of doing things. Once Sputnik was launched the
government decided we need more brainiacs; we need more people
with advanced degrees, not just in science, biology, chemistry,
physics, and things like that, but in everything, including foreign
language, because now it’s a big world out there. And so the
government—at that time we weren’t fighting wars, Korea was over—
began lavishing money on people to do graduate work, to get masters
and get Ph.D.s. So higher education, the Ph.D., if you aim for it, was
the thing to do, the way to go. And I’m sad to say, but, among most of
the people that influenced me, my professors mainly, law was
considered a kind of a compromise. If you were very bright, but had a
kind of a “pedestrian” mind or a “prosaic” mind, then you sold
yourself to corporate America or to Wall Street, and you went off to
Harvard Law. Are you Harvard Law by chance?
Mrs. Easton: No, I’m Yale. (Both laugh.)
Judge Farrell: Same thing. It is—it was a sea change. I don’t know if you
experienced it later on, but in the Fifties law was—great people went
there, but it was a minority. And the people in my era, in the Sixties,
chased after the golden ring of the Ph.D. to land a job teaching at Yale,
philosophy, English, history, modern languages, and so forth—a huge
number. But the wind went right out of the balloon when the Vienam
War came in the early Seventies. And so many of those people, many
of whom I knew afterwards, ended up struggling, starting careers over
again. The number of people—it still happens now—who went on to
law school in their late Thirties and Forties, after they had picked up
useless Ph.D.s, you know; it was astonishing. But that’s a whole story,
and it partly accounts for—looking back I probably would have been a
better person if I had gone into law earlier, but I didn’t. I went quite
late—and who knows.
Mrs. Easton: Well, next time we get together—
Judge Farrell: Yep.
Mrs. Easton: —I probably want to talk just a little bit more about Notre Dame,
classes, and your senior thesis, what you wrote about, and then I’d like
to move into the “wandering years.”
Judge Farrell: Uh!
Mrs. Easton: (Laughs.) And hear where you went, what you did, whatever it flows
to, so and how you matured, and then how you ended up. I mean, I
gather from wandering about, getting a Master’s degree and becoming
a teacher and becoming the head of an English department.
Judge Farrell: Yeah, yeah—
Mrs. Easton: I want to hear about the languages you studied and the places you
went, and then we’ll sort of make the transition into law—
Judge Farrell: —into law—
Mrs. Easton: —and that phase.
Judge Farrell: It’s a very interesting thing for people. They kind of listen to me with
their mouth wide open when they hear me explain how I wasted the
years between twenty and thirty, because so many of them came out of
college and knew what they want to do, they were into graduate school
or law school at the age of twenty-four and went right on from there.
But, you know, it doesn’t happen to everybody. And in my case I
think it was part, largely a function of the fact that I think I matured
Mrs. Easton: Well, what I’ll be curious to know, also, as you look back on it,
because the other half of the story is I know a whole lot of lawyers
who wish they had gone to teach.
Judge Farrell: Yep.
Mrs. Easton: You know, there’s a —there’s sort of a flip side of it, you know, for
those who drove straight through and now look back and say, boy it
could have very rewarding to really have a really important influence
on a forming high school mind. (Laughs.)
Judge Farrell: Yeah, yeah, yeah, well— (laughter)
Mrs. Easton: So, I wonder if looking back now you see some value in those times
even though it was sort of an eddy in your current. (Laughs.)
Judge Farrell: Well we can talk more about that. I’ll give you a little short intro to it.
And that is that my wife, my first wife, was kind of the peer supervisor
at the prep school where I ended up teaching before I started law. And
she was the one who told me that I was a lousy teacher because she’d
come around and do class visitation. And she said, “Michael, you
are—you think you should be teaching college, and the result is you’re
teaching the good students, they don’t need you, you’re not teaching
the kids who need you.” And that thought kind of stuck with me, and
was one of the things that—I think I’d already begun night school
law—but that kind of was one of the things that made me decide that I
wasn’t cut out for high school teaching. And I wasn’t going to make it
in college teaching. I was in my Thirties, I was still sitting on my
dissertation—two-thirds finished, I never finished it—in German
literature, and so I made the career switch. But that’s kind of a prelim.
Mrs. Easton: Oh, good, well, that’s good to have that, that sort of teaser. Now I’m
very eager to get back into the story.
ORAL HISTORY OF JUDGE MICHAEL W. FARRELL