Thomas N. O'Neill Jr., 89, of Gladwyne, a senior judge for the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, died Tuesday, Jan. 16, at Bryn Mawr Hospital of an illness affecting his brain.

Thomas N. O’Neill Jr.
Courtesy of the family
Thomas N. O’Neill Jr.

Judge O'Neill was regarded as a fair and considerate jurist who understood the foibles of human nature and took them into account when deciding cases. He also was loved as a good friend and was known for his ability to tell a great story, his colleagues said.

"He was an outstanding judge," said Senior Judge Harvey Bartle III, his friend on the federal bench for 26 years. "He was a person who was respected by his colleagues and extraordinarily well-liked. He was friendly, outgoing, and always interested in other people, and a wonderful raconteur."

In June 1983, President Ronald Reagan nominated Judge O'Neill to the federal bench in the Eastern District, and his appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He took the bench in August.

The judge compiled a distinguished record presiding over criminal and civil cases starting in August 1983, and focusing on civil matters exclusively after being named a senior judge in July 1996. He retired last September.

"He was very understanding in the way he applied the law," Bartle said. "He was extremely fair-minded."

Judge O'Neill went the extra distance in 1995 when confessed murderer Leon Moser said that he wanted to die for the 1985 shooting deaths of his former wife and two young daughters outside St. James Episcopal Church in Lower Providence Township.

Pressed by Moser's lawyers, the judge granted a 24-hour stay pending a psychiatric evaluation and a hearing to determine if the defendant was mentally ill. But the hearing and evaluation never occurred. Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the stay on Aug. 17, Moser was put to death by lethal injection.

A year earlier, in an unrelated case, Judge O'Neill sentenced Terrence Williams, who was convicted of selling guns out of his Spring Garden barber shop, to four years in prison, 18 months more than the court's recommended term. Many of the guns were used in the commission of other crimes, and others were still on the street at the time of sentence.

In imposing the longer sentence, the judge told Williams he could not ignore the "enormous harm you have caused."

Another way in which Judge O'Neill distinguished himself was to serve on the Codes of Conduct Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States from 1995 to 2001.

"This is an extremely important committee because he represented our circuit," Bartle said. "When a judge had an ethical or a conflict of interest question, Judge O'Neill would be the one we would go to.

"It takes a special person to be able to handle that position. It's a very sensitive area, too. It's not always black and white. He was very good at navigating the gray areas. We'll miss him greatly."

Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Mary F. Platt recalled Judge O'Neill fondly as a friend and mentor. In 1976, Judge O'Neill, too, served as Bar Association chancellor.

Under his leadership, the group focused on the selection of members of the judiciary and their performance on the bench, as well as making sure low-income clients could get access to legal advice. As a result, there was increased demand for free and low-cost legal services through the bar association's Lawyer Referral and Information Service, said Platt.

"He will always be remembered for his brilliance as a lawyer and judge, his respect for litigants and counsel who appeared before him, his humility, and his kind and caring nature and concern for others," Platt said.

Born in Hanover, York County, Judge O'Neill graduated from Eichelberger High School, the Catholic University of America in 1950, and the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1953.

He was a law clerk for Judge Herbert Goodrich of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit from 1953 to 1954, and for Justice Harold Burton of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1954 to 1955. From 1955 to 1956, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics.

Before becoming a judge, he was a partner and chair of the litigation department at the Philadelphia law firm of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP, where he worked from 1956 to 1983.

A busy volunteer, the judge was active on the board of overseers of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and as a board member of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. He was an incorporator and board member of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and a founding chairman of the University of Pennsylvania Law School American Inn of Court.

In 1961, he married Jeanne Corr. They had three children.

In addition to his wife of 56 years, he is survived by children Caroline J. O'Neill, Thomas N. III, and Ellen O'Neill Deitrich; six grandchildren; a sister; and many nieces and nephews.

A visitation starting at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 22, will be followed by a 12:30 p.m. Funeral Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, 1723 Race St. Interment is in Calvary Cemetery, West Conshohocken.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Hon. Thomas N. O'Neill Jr. Prize Fund, University of Pennsylvania Law School, 3501 Sansom St., Philadelphia 19104, or via https://giving.aws.cloud.upenn.edu/fund?program=LAW&fund=403981.