Judge Edward Leavy ’53 J.D., senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, died on March 12 after a remarkable life and legal career. He was 93.
Leavy served as a judge for an incredible 66 years, starting at the county level in 1957 when he was just four years out of law school. He was lauded throughout his career for his skill as a judge and mediator. In 2015, he received the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award — widely considered to be the most prestigious award bestowed upon an Article III judge — in a ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Leavy was treasured by those who knew him personally. He touched the lives of many grateful members of the Notre Dame Law School community, including a number who benefited from serving their judicial clerkships alongside him in Portland’s historic Pioneer Courthouse, “the oldest extant federal building in the Pacific Northwest.”
O’Toole Professor of Constitutional Law Anthony J. Bellia Jr. clerked for Leavy’s Ninth Circuit colleague, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain. “It was a privilege to get to know Judge Leavy during my time working in the Pioneer Courthouse,” Bellia said. “He exemplified the best characteristics of a judge—unfailing honesty, sincere humility, extraordinary competence, and devoted concern for the cause of justice. Those who worked with him were not only better lawyers for it, but better people.”
Born during the Great Depression in rural Oregon as the youngest of 10 children, Leavy was 11 years old when his Irish immigrant father died, leaving his mother, him, and his siblings to work long hours on the family’s hop farm whenever they weren’t in school. Decades later, while recording his memories and experiences for the Oregon Historical Society’s Oral History project, Leavy recalled that he missed an average of 35 days a year in high school so that he could help out on the farm, and that six of his 16 high school graduation credits were in vocational agriculture.
He nevertheless became the first in his family to continue his education after high school, graduating from the University of Portland in 1950 and enrolling at Notre Dame Law School. He married his high school sweetheart Eileen Hagenauer in 1951, fathered the first of their five children during his 3L year at Notre Dame, and graduated fourth in his law school class in 1953.
Upon returning to Oregon, he entered private practice and served as a deputy district attorney before setting out on a 20-year career in the Oregon state court system, first as a district and circuit court judge in Lane County and later as a justice pro tem on the Oregon Supreme Court.
Leavy first entered the federal judiciary in 1976 when he was named a U.S. magistrate judge. He was subsequently confirmed as a U.S. District Court judge in 1984, and elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1987. He was then appointed to the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review in 2001, and continued to carry a large caseload as a Ninth Circuit senior judge while also working as a mediator who was called upon to settle complex litigation across the nation —including the plea agreement that settled the famous 1999 case involving Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a New Mexico scientist accused of mishandling the nation’s nuclear secrets.
All the while, the family farm that played such a large role in forming Leavy’s work ethic proudly hosted scores of visiting attorneys, judges, and U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Notre Dame Law School alumna Meredith Holland Kessler, a staff attorney with the Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic, noted that one of her fondest memories from her service as a law clerk to Judge O’Scannlain was attending the Oregon U.S. District Court Historical Society’s Annual Picnic at the Leavy farm.
“Judge Leavy’s warm hospitality and ardent pride for his family and their Century Farm defined the gathering of the legal community that Judge Leavy dearly loved,” Kessler said. “Gracious to each person he encountered, Judge Leavy was remarkably humble given his extraordinary legal career. His abundant wisdom and deep commitment to serving others were easily apparent in his many stories from his childhood, time at Notre Dame Law School, and decades as a judge.”
John Meiser, managing director for domestic litigation at the Religious Liberty Clinic, clerked for O’Scannlain upon graduating from law school and returned to the Pioneer Courthouse as a career clerk for O’Scannlain from 2015 to 2021.
“I have never met a warmer, more gracious man than Judge Leavy,” Meiser said. “It makes me tremendously sad to know that he is gone and to imagine life in the Pioneer Courthouse without him. He welcomed everyone who walked through the doors as an equal, indeed as a friend. He generously shared his time and his attention — but especially his smile — with fellow judges, court staff, and visitors alike. He was indispensable to the community of us who were lucky enough to work there alongside him, and I will miss him dearly.”
The depth and breadth of Leavy’s impact on the profession is perhaps best demonstrated by the tsunami of support his successful 2015 nomination for the prestigious Devitt Award — often referenced as “the Nobel Prize for the judiciary” — received from federal and state court judges, the attorney general of Oregon and a former governor of the state, federal agency representatives, members of the bar, law professors, and Native American tribal councils.
Yet his largest legacy may have been the impression his good character left on those who knew him. Notre Dame Law Professor Marah Stith McLeod, another former O’Scannlain clerk, put it this way: “Judge Leavy was a force for good — a jurist of great integrity and depth, and a human being whose humble concern and compassion for others blessed all those who crossed his path.”
The Rev. William Dailey, C.S.C., Notre Dame Law School’s chaplain and a lecturer in law, also got to know Leavy well thanks to his O’Scannlain clerkship.
“Judge Ed Leavy,” he said, “was an extraordinary man whose virtues could not easily be numbered. Above all he was a humble, dedicated public servant who approached his work with zeal and integrity. As a friend and mentor, he was gentle and genial, and he exuded gratitude for what he once told me was his ‘improbably’ fortunate life in which his admission to Notre Dame ranked at the very top of his blessings. Judge Leavy was a model public servant and a man of such evident character and goodness that after any interaction large or small with him you walked away feeling better about the world if only because people like him are in it. I will be forever grateful for his friendship and guidance.”