Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 114, page(s) 739-742

OBITUARY SKETCH OF HOWARD J. CURTIS

Howard Junior Curtis was born in Stratford, Connecticut, June 29th, 1857, and died there on September 24th, 1931. His ancestors settled in Wethersfield in 1640 and shortly moved to Stratford. He graduated from Yale, academic, in 1881, was for the next year principal of a school in Chatham, Virginia, and by studying law after school hours entered the senior class of the Yale Law School, from which he graduated in June, 1883, with a cum laude honor. He was admitted to the Connecticut bar June 27th, 1883. In the following October he entered into a law partnership with George W. Wheeler, his roommate in Yale, and practiced law in Bridgeport under the firm name of Wheeler and Curtis until the firm was dissolved February 28th, 1893, due to the election by the General Assembly of Curtis to the Fairfield County Court of Common Pleas and of Wheeler to the Superior Court upon the nomination of Governor Morris.

As a practitioner Curtis was one of the most studious and capable of the younger members of the Fairfield County bar, a scholar of the law and a sound adviser. His preparation of a case was thorough and his presentation of it characterized by its accurate appreciation of the essentials of the case, its grasp of the facts and its constant appeal to sound sense and ripe judgment.

He soon enjoyed as a judge the entire confidence and warm admiration of the bar and he maintained the high repute which that court held under his immediate predecessors, Judge John H. Perry and Judge, later Chief Justice, Hall. To the younger members of the bar he was a helpful friend. When his four-year term was about to end the democratic majority of the county representatives which had chosen him had given way to a republican majority. A leader of the house, a prominent lawyer, contested the position. Behind Judge Curtis' remarkable record influential lawyers and members of the General Assembly made a successful contest. Judge Curtis' retention on the bench, in a time of such strong party feeling, was a tremendous tribute to his services as a judge and to his character as a man.

One manifestation of the bar's regard for him was their obtaining the passage of a legislative act increasing the civil jurisdiction of the court by $1000; not another Common Pleas Court in the State was accorded this distinction until some years later. Judge Curtis continued in that court for fourteen years, having been twice nominated by the Fairfield County caucus and twice by a Governor of an opposite political faith. In January, 1907, upon the advice of leading lawyers and with the cordial approval of the bar of the State, Judge Curtis became a Judge of the Superior Court and continued in that service for twelve and a half years. By natural and acquired qualifications he was pre-eminently fitted for judicial place. By inclination and ambition he was a jurist. He possessed to a far higher degree than most judges do the judicial temperament. He loved the right and felt its call. His mind was well balanced and well poised. He was even tempered, patient as a listener, and in demeanor kindly and courteous. He never spoke before he had thought the point to be decided clear through to its beginning. Whatever he said or wrote was clear, to the point and somewhat sparing of words. He had an unusual power of analyzing facts and legal problems. When he graduated from the Yale Law School, Professor, afterward Chief Justice, Simeon E. Baldwin wrote him a letter emphasizing his capacity for close analysis. His charges to the jury were models. Both law and facts were brought within the average man's comprehension. They fulfilled their so often forgotten purpose, they helped the cause of justice by helping the jury to reach the right verdict. It was a charge, not an essay. No trial judge in his generation surpassed him as a trial judge, when all the qualifications which go to make up a great trial judge are taken into consideration. Within Judge Curtis there dwelt a tranquil but a resolute spirit and an abiding love for the majesty of the law. When there was a judicial duty to be performed he never faltered or retreated from responsibility. He never weighed the consequences of his judicial action. His was a moral courage of high order. Governor Holcomb nominated Judge Curtis to be a Justice of the Supreme Court of Errors to take office in August, 1920. He continued in that court for nearly seven years and retired, through constitutional age limitation, June 27th, 1927. Judge Curtis brought to that court a rich harvest of experience, a well and splendidly disciplined mind, fine ability, a love for judicial work and very many of the qualifications which that position demands. He had a profound knowledge of fundamental legal principles and how to apply them. He was in truth a sound lawyer. He had an innate love of justice. He reasoned logically and fairly. He had sturdy common sense. He was quick to change his conclusion when convinced of his error. He wrote with lucid clarity. His opinions found in eleven or twelve of our Supreme Court Reports reveal these characteristics. They are essentially the product of clear legal thinking, their conclusion is inescapable. They are carefully and well written and some are leading cases. Judge Curtis' opinion with his associates in the conference room was weighty. His quietly expressed word represented a considered judgment which they deeply respected. The judicial attainments and wide repute of Judge Curtis, then a Superior Court Judge, led the United States Attorney-General McReynolds to tender him a position on the Circuit Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit made vacant by the resignation of Judge Walter Noyes. For personal reasons Judge Curtis was obliged to decline this high honor.

Colonel Osborn, in a memorable editorial at Judge Curtis' decease, said: "He was a wise and upright Judge, not solely because he was learned in the law and understood its place in the administration of justice, but also because he was in temperament wise and upright in his outlook upon life and appreciative of the weaknesses as well as the virtues of mankind. . . . His promotion to the bench of the Superior Court and thence to the Supreme Court fulfilled the prophecies of his friends and the logic of devoted service." Judge Curtis' character matched and overmatched his intellectual attainments as jurist and judge, indeed, that was the base upon which his distinguished career was builded.

His personal qualities bound his friends to him with enduring affection. Strength and courage in him were mixed with a humility which was never weakness, and with these went the serene mind and the quiet humor which scattered the clouds and alleviated the hard spots of life. Upon his retirement Judge Ells wrote him: "You have been throughout your splendid career a strong man engaged in a harsh business who yet at all times had a sweetness, a gentleness, a humility that mark you really a great man. You have seen life in all its distressing phases, and yet the evening twilight finds you gentle still."

Judge Curtis' attachment to the profession of the law was strong. He was an active member of the Fairfield County Law Library Committee of three from 1901 until his resignation in 1928, and for the larger part of this period its chairman.

He was president of the Bridgeport Bar Association in 1902-3. By designation of the justices of the Supreme Court he served on the State Board of Pardons for some six years.

Every professional distinction which came to him came solely upon merit.

Judge Curtis was deeply interested in the progress and welfare of his native town of Stratford, serving long upon her Board of Education and as president of the Stratford Library Association until his death. Judge Curtis was a loving husband, an indulgent yet wise father, an outstanding citizen, a friend of friends, a man who lived close to his ideals.

He married on June 8th, 1888, Ellen V. Talbot of Stratford, also of Colonial ancestry, who with two children survive him; a son, John Talbot Curtis, practices law in New York City, a daughter, Mrs. Robert Brown, resides with her husband in Oklahoma. Another son, Howard Wheeler Curtis, graduated from Yale in 1912 and from the Yale Law School in 1915. He served in the World War, attaining the rank of Captain of Infantry. Precarious health, which prevented his service overseas, caused his death in 1920 while a practicing lawyer in Bridgeport.

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