By Nell Jessup Newton, Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice N. Patrick Crooks, ’63 J.D., passed away on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. He was 77 years old. Justice Crooks served in the Wisconsin judiciary for 39 years, first on the trial court and then on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, to which he was elected in 1996 and re-elected in 2006. Only a week before his death, he announced that he planned to retire on July 31, 2016.
Justice Crooks was a Wisconsin native, born in Green Bay. He received his bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College in 1960 before attending Notre Dame Law School, from which he graduated third in his class. Justice Crooks and his wife, Kristin, had six children, Michael, Molly McGee, Kevin; Peggy Nowicki, Kathleen Flynn, and Eileen McCleary. Notably five of them (Michael, Molly, Kevin, Peggy, and Kathleen) became attorneys.
During his tenure as a judge, Justice Crooks earned the reputation of being an outstanding leader and thoughtful decision maker. In a court that was often riven by sharp political disagreements, Justice Crooks remained consistently independent, at times siding with the conservative members of the court and at times with his liberal colleagues. Well regarded by both sides, he served as a leavening influence on the court. Several news stories characterized his role as that of a peacemaker. He prided himself on deciding cases on their merits, even if doing so led to a conclusion he did not personally support. For example, in 2014 he joined the majority upholding Act 10, the Wisconsin collective bargaining measure. In his opinion, however, he noted his personal disagreement with the policies furthered by Act 10 and his support in principle for collective bargaining.
Before sitting on the state’s highest court, Justice Crooks served as an officer in the United States Army’s Office of the Judge Advocate General and as a judge in the Brown County Court.
Justice Crooks’s distinguished career was highlighted in numerous stories in the Wisconsin press and in a moving obituary. These reports contain details about his career and the high regard in which he was held by colleagues and friends in Wisconsin.
Pat was also greatly loved by the Notre Dame Law School community. He served on the Notre Dame Law Alumni (NDLA) Board for 10 years, in which role he came to know alumni and faculty from different eras in NDLS history. The NDLA board recently met in South Bend and a number of his fellow board members reflected on his many contributions.
Patricia O’Hara, ’74 J.D., and former dean of NDLS, stated that he was “a wonderful man, and this is a real loss – to his family, the people of Wisconsin, and the Notre Dame Law School community.” Two former presidents of the NDLA, Tom Curtin, ’68 J.D., and Richard Catenacci,’62,’65 J.D., both stressed Justice Crooks’s contributions to the Board and each used similar language that described Justice Crooks as thoughtful, deliberate, quiet, and unassuming. Pete Witty, ’89, ’97 J.D. recalled that the first time he sat next to Justice Crooks at a meeting, he introduced himself and when Witty asked him what he did, Pat replied, simply, “I’m a judge.”
Soon after the announcement, a number of Justice Crooks’s classmates from the great NDLS class of 1963 contacted the Law School with memories of him, including Bob Saxe, Bob Noe, Phil Byrne, Ed Adams, Jim Lekin, and Norm Matteoni. According to Norm Matteoni: “The class of 63L lost a star in its ranks when Pat Crooks passed away September 21 in chambers of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, doing what he did best as a professional – working for the people as a justice for that court.” As might be expected, some of Pat’s classmates’ memories included his studying for the daunting comprehensives that were a hallmark of study at NDLS during the O’Meara era, and rooting for his favorite team (after the Fighting Irish, of course), the Green Bay Packers, or doing both at once — Matteoni recalls Pat studying hard with the radio tuned to the Packers game in the background. Several friends commented on Pat’s firm but quiet faith, and a number of his classmates and colleagues from the NDLA remarked on his humor. According to Bob Saxe, when Pat won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme court after having lost in his previous attempt, he reported that a key to his victory was his endorsement by a prominent police officers’ association that adopted the slogan, “Cops Love Crooks.” According to Jim Lekin, “Aside from Pat’s skills, abilities, and accomplishments, his quiet humility was a quality of limitless bounds and inspiration. Coincidentally, Pope Francis is delivering the same message and projects this wonderful quality of humility – Judge Pat Crooks, our classmate and friend, did the same.”
Much admired as a fair and careful jurist by the citizens of Wisconsin, Pat Crooks will be greatly missed by his classmates and colleagues at Notre Dame who loved and cherished him.