Judge James R. Lawton
March 20, 2007
Funeral from the Conley Funeral Home, 138 Belmont Street (Rte 123) Brockton Saturday at 8 am. A Funeral Mass will be celebrated in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Brockton at 9 am by Rev. James Chichetto, C.S.C. Burial in Calvary Cemetery, Brockton. Visiting hours Thursday 5-8 pm and Friday 2-4 & 6-8 pm. Donations may be made to the Judge James R. Lawton Scholarship Fund at the New England School of Law, 154 Stuart St., Boston, MA 02116.
Judge James R. Lawton at 81,former legislator, retired jurist and law school board chairman
In 1969, Judge James R. Lawton of, Brockton, was elected as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the New England School of Law in Boston. For the next thirty-seven years, Judge Lawton, as Chairman of the Board, participated in and directed the law school’s commencement exercises, the last such exercise being held on May 26, 2006 at Boston’s Wang Center. On that date, he handed his oldest grandchild, Patrick O’Leary Lawton, his Juris Doctor degree, just as he had done previously for four of his five sons. That was the last commencement exercise he attended. Judge Lawton died on March 20,2007. He fell at his Brockton home on February 3, 2007, fracturing his hip. He never recovered.
Judge Lawton, known to many as Jimmy, was born on October 20, 1925, the fourth of seven children of Irish immigrant parents. His father, WW1 Army veteran Fred Lawton, was a shoe worker, who died tragically on February 15, 1931 at age 38, when run over and killed by a hit and run driver. His son, Jim, was five at the time. The killer was never apprehended. Under the leadership of Fred Lawton’s best friend, City Councilor John J. O’Donnell, $5,000.00 was raised from Brockton’s shoe workers and military veterans to purchase a farmhouse for Mrs. Lawton and her seven children. The home was located on Summer Street on Brockton’s East Side.
The older Lawton children had to work to help support their mother and the younger children. The young Jimmy Lawton found work in the entertainment industry. Even as a young boy, Lawton was paid to do his impersonations of well known people of the day such as Massachusetts Governor Christian Herter, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, W.C. Field, Ethel Barrymore and Eleanor Roosevelt among others. His favorite was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As a teenager, Jim Lawton was a regular at the Brockton Fair. He was a member of the popular ‘Youth on Parade’, which was a collection of talented youth from around the country who entertained on stage and on the radio. Every minstrel show had a spot for the talented Jimmy Lawton.
Jim Lawton left Brockton High School after his junior year to enlist in the United States Army. His military unit, the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 17th Airborne Division, participated in the final airborne invasion of Europe, called “Operation Varsity”. At age 19, he parachuted into Wessel Germany. He was seriously wounded in action in Munster, Germany, on March 30, 1945. Lawton spent a year and a half in Army hospitals until his final discharge in November of 1946. He received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart Medals, the Combat Infantry Badge, a Presidential Unit Citation, as well as other decorations. He took great pride in his military service and even greater pride in the military careers of his grandchildren, including that of his grandson, Army Ranger Captain Timothy Lawton, a West Point graduate now serving his third combat tour of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 1947, Jim Lawton ran for a seat on the Brockton City Council. He was elected at age 22, becoming the youngest councilor ever elected in Brockton’s history. In 1952, Lawton was elected to his first of five terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, becoming at that time one of the youngest ever elected to that body. He was also one of only a few Democrats from Plymouth County to serve on Beacon Hill at that time. In the House, Lawton served on the Committee on Ways & Means, Chaired the Committee on Bills in Third Reading and served as House Chairman on the Commission to Redistrict Legislative, Council & Congressional seats.
It was the same legislative district that Jim Lawton represented for ten years that elected his oldest son, Mark Lawton, in 1974. His son, Mark was also elected to five House terms. He presently serves as an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court, having been appointed by Governor Edward J. King.
In 1962, Representative Jim Lawton, ran statewide for the office of Attorney General. In June of 1962, Lawton won the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, besting Boston Senator Mario Umana and former Worcester Senator Joe Ward, who had been the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1960. It was at that same convention in Springfield, Massachusetts, that the delegates also chose a young 29 year-old Ted Kennedy as the nominee for the United States Senate. Jim Lawton was a friend and supporter of Kennedy’s brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then in the second year of his Presidency. Lawton had been a delegate for Jack Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
In the Democratic primary election that year, Jim Lawton lost a close race to former Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General, Francis Kelley, of Boston. Kelley eventually lost the 1962 November election to Edward Brooke, who had beaten Elliot Richardson in the Republican primary for Attorney General. Brooke went on to serve in the United States Senate, the first black to do so since Reconstruction. Jim Lawton’s son, Judge Mark Lawton, is currently assigned to work in the new Suffolk County Courthouse named after Edward Brooke.
After losing the fight for Attorney General, the newly elected Governor, Endicott ‘Chub’ Peabody, asked the Jim Lawton to be his legislative secretary. Lawton served in that capacity until the following year when Peabody appointed Lawton to be his Registrar of Motor Vehicles, the seventh Registrar in Massachusetts history, succeeding long-term Registrar Clem Riley.
Lawton changed jobs again, this time in October of 1964, when Governor Peabody nominated and appointed him a Judge of Probate for Plymouth County. He was only thirty-nine years of age, at that time one of the youngest judges ever appointed in Massachusetts. During his judicial tenure, Judge Lawton was an active force in legislative reforms in the areas of adoption, foster care and child support, changes that have improved the lives of children throughout the Commonwealth. He was also one of the founders of the Massachusetts Judge’s Conference. Judge Lawton served in the Massachusetts Trial Court for thirty-one years, retiring in October of 1995, at the mandatory retirement age of seventy.
Judge James Lawton found himself involved in a controversial child custody case just months before his retirement. The case came to be known as the “Twins” case. The case was front page news in the United States and Europe. In the case, Judge Lawton privately consulted with the eleven year-old twins in his lobby as he had done in hundreds of prior custody cases involving children old enough to express their own opinion. Each child expressed a very strong desire to stay with a different parent. Judge Lawton accommodated their wishes, even keeping them in the same school together. Lawton’s February 1995 decision to “separate the twins” exploded in the media all over the world. Judge Lawton stated to a Brockton Enterprise reporter at the time, “What better witness is there in a custody case than the person whose custody is at stake?” The custody battle involving the twins waged on for years before Judge James Meno, who took over the case upon Judge Lawton’s retirement.
After retiring from the bench, Judge Lawton remained active as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the New England School of Law. During his thirty-seven year tenure, the law school moved from Beacon Hill to Newbury Street and finally to its present location at 154 Stuart Street in Boston’s theatre district.
Judge Jim Lawton brought many judicial luminaries to law school functions over the years. United States Supreme Court Justices, Harry Blackman, Sandra Day O’Connor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia all accepted Judge Lawton’s invitations to come to Boston. In 1983, Judge Lawton, with assistance from fellow Board member and United States Secret Service Director, John Simpson, who grew up in Boston’s Dorchester section, secured Vice President George Bush’s presence at the school’s 75th anniversary celebration in Boston. Judge Lawton had recently invited President George W. Bush to appear at the school’s 100th birthday celebration to be held some time over the next twelve months, a celebration that Judge Jimmy Lawton will miss. Dean of the New England School of Law, John O’Brien, stated yesterday, “Judge Jim Lawton will be missed more than you’ll ever know. There’ll never be anyone quite like him – ever. Judge Lawton was my boss, but he was also the best friend I ever had.” Judge Lawton’s son, Atty. Richard James Lawton, a 2006 gubernatorial appointee to the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees, said yesterday, “My dad’s passing reminds me of a great quote, ‘The worst misfortune that can happen to an ordinary man is to have an extraordinary father’, and our dad was extraordinary.”
Judge Lawton leaves his wife of almost fifty-nine years, Jeanne Gloria (Cashman) Lawton. They were married in Brockton, on October 16, 1948. He also leaves five sons, Judge Mark Edward Lawton and his wife, Patricia, of Bridgewater; Atty. Thomas David Lawton of Bridgewater; Atty. Richard James Lawton and his wife, Michelle, of Easton; Captain Robert Sean Lawton & his wife Jeanne, of Brockton; and, Atty. Paul Matthew Lawton, of Brockton. He is also survived by seven grandchildren: Plymouth County Assistant District Attorney Patrick O’Leary Lawton, Army Ranger Captain Timothy Clifford Lawton, Molly Burke Lawton, Daniel James Lawton, Elizabeth Jeanne Lawton, McKenzie Ann Lawton and Ryan David Lawton.