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Gentlemanly, gracious U.S. District Judge John Darrah dies at 78

U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah died Thursday. | Photo courtesy of Daily Herald

U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah died Thursday at the age of 78, court officials said.

The Chicago native, appointed to the federal bench in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, was remembered by friends and lawyers as a gentlemanly and gracious jurist with little tolerance for nonsense but a great sense of humor.

“He told great stories,” said Jim Ryan, son of the former Illinois attorney general with the same name.

Darrah’s most notable case in recent years may have been the lawsuit filed over movie mogul George Lucas’ planned museum along Lake Michigan. Darrah’s decision early last year not to dismiss the case brought by Friends of the Parks became a turning point in a legal battle that ultimately drove the Lucas Museum to Los Angeles.

In his February 2016 ruling, Darrah wrote that park advocates had made a sufficient case that Lucas’ museum was “not for the benefit of the public” and would “promote private and/or commercial interests.”

But the judge also made headlines last year when he tossed former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds in jail and called him a “bad flight risk.” The ex-congressman, who has faced misdemeanor tax charges since 2015, could not find a suitable place to live after failing to meet Darrah’s deadline for returning to Chicago from South Africa.

Darrah was also credited in 2003 with handing a record 20-year prison sentence for receipt and possession of child pornography to former Roman Catholic priest Vincent McCaffrey.

“Throughout his time on the bench, Judge Darrah demonstrated an incredible sense of fairness and impartiality,” Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said. “He valued and embodied the importance of family.”

Darrah and his wife, Jeanine, have 10 children, Castillo said.

Former Attorney General Jim Ryan shared a law firm in DuPage County with Darrah between 1976 and 1984, Ryan’s son said. While the two worked together at Ryan & Darrah, the families became close.

The former attorney general thought of Darrah as “a brilliant lawyer” and a “wonderful judge,” Ryan’s son said.

“He’s devastated by the loss, as our family is,” the younger Ryan said. “He’ll be missed.”

Defense attorney Thomas Anthony Durkin said Darrah never forgot his South Side roots, and that “made him an excellent judge.”

“He did not suffer fools easily,” Durkin said.

Darrah gave six months of home confinement last year to Father Eugene Klein, a client of Durkin’s who plotted to recover what he believed to be a rare 1764 Stradivarius violin from the home of feared mob killer Frank Calabrese Sr.

“What you did, Father Klein, was wrong, and was seriously wrong,” Darrah told the priest.

But the judge also said he wasn’t convinced the violin existed. And, Darrah said, “there has to be some touchstone in reality.”

While the sentence may have seemed light, Durkin said it’s not particularly easy for a single man to be confined to his home for six months. The attorney said it was “a classic example of how good a judge” Darrah had been.

“He called it the way he saw it,” Durkin said.

U.S. District Judge John Darrah (left) swears in Ray Soden as a state senator in 2003. | Daily Herald file photo