Obituary: Joseph F. Weis Jr. / Judge celebrated in court, on battlefield
March 12, 1923 - March 19, 2014
March 19, 2014 11:47 PM
Joseph F. Weis Jr.
By Torsten Ove / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joseph F. Weis Jr., an unassuming North Side boy who was nearly killed on a World War II battlefield and rose to become one of the most respected federal appellate judges in the nation, died Wednesday at his home in Fox Chapel.
He was 91.
"I learned a lot from him during the time we served together," said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who spent 15 years with Judge Weis on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "He was the model of an appellate judge -- fair, scholarly, very patient. He was not quick to come to a decision. He gave it very thorough consideration. He was tremendously even-handed."
Thomas Hardiman, a 3rd Circuit judge who learned the ropes from Judge Weis, said the judge was a hero to everyone in the Pittsburgh legal and judicial community and beyond.
When he was new to the appellate bench, he said, Judge Weis served as his mentor.
"He helped me with my first opinion [in 2003]," he said. "He came over to my house and we sat at my kitchen table and he went through every line of that opinion. I found that to be a remarkable act of generosity and kindness. And that was who he was."
Universally respected as much for his humility as his intellect, Judge Weis had been a judge on the 3rd Circuit since 1973 until his retirement at age 90 last year.
Until 2006, he still came to his office in the U.S. Courthouse, Downtown.
His former law clerks proudly call themselves the "Weis guys." The 3rd Circuit library at the courthouse was named in his honor in 2010.
"He was the smartest person in the room, but he was fun and witty and charming," said Ken Gormley, Duquesne University Law School dean, who served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Donald Ziegler in the early 1980s and came into contact with Judge Weis. "He was a national player, and everyone respected him. He was just a very special treasure of Pittsburgh."
Joseph Weis was born in 1923 in Ross when that community was rural and grew up on the North Side in a big Catholic family. He graduated from Perry High School in 1941 and was attending Duquesne when the war came.
He was ice skating at Duquesne Gardens in Oakland on Dec. 7 when the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced on the loudspeaker.
"Many of those there did not know where Pearl Harbor was located but a long, low moan went over the crowd, as if somehow it collectively knew what terrible times were ahead," he wrote in an unpublished memoir.
He enlisted in the Army in 1942.
"It was the thing to do," he told the Post-Gazette in 2004. "The country was at war and I felt I should be out there doing my share."
Those who fought with him in Europe, where he served as a forward observer, said he was cool under fire. But like so many World War II vets, he rarely discussed combat.
"People who haven't been there really don't understand," he said.
Mr. Weis' war ended Nov. 11, 1944, while the Fourth Armored Division was pressing east in France just before the Battle of the Bulge.
A tank shell burst, wounding Mr. Weis in the leg. He returned to battle that same day only to have a mortar round land behind him. Shrapnel tore into his back, leg and pelvis; when he opened his shirt, he saw his intestines.
A fellow Pittsburgher, Chester Wernecke, came to his rescue, loading him onto a jeep and heading for the battalion aid station through shell fire.
In later years, at various functions in which Judge Weis was honored, he always took the time to publicly recognize his friend as "the man who saved my life."
Mr. Weis received the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre, presented by the French Republic for acts of heroism in combat, and the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France's highest decoration.
He spent four years in and out of hospitals, and his wounds still hadn't completely healed when he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1950.
Mr. Weis returned to Europe in 1952, retracing the route of the Fourth Armored, and in 2004 traveled to France for the 60th anniversary celebration of the liberation of the city of Montargis.
"I've never had any experience since that compares to combat," he told the Post-Gazette in reminiscing before that trip. "And I don't want to."
After law school, Mr. Weis joined his father to form Weis & Weis in 1952, later to be joined by his three younger brothers.
Mr. Weis developed a reputation as a skilled trial attorney. In 1967, he was involved in winning a $2 million verdict against Union Carbide, at the time the largest verdict ever in federal court in Western Pennsylvania.
Mr. Weis also served as founder and president of the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County and as vice president of the Allegheny County Bar Association.
In 1968, he ran for Common Pleas judge in Allegheny County and won in a landslide with a campaign that became the standard for years thereafter.
In 1970, Judge Weis was appointed to the federal bench and three years later President Richard Nixon nominated him for a seat on the 3rd Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands.
Judge Weis received many accolades during his long career.
At a ceremony in 1995 for the unveiling of his official portrait, one of his former law clerks, Art Stroyd, spoke for dozens of former clerks when he described Judge Weis as his role model.
"It is a template that we have all been able to apply over so many difficult issues and situations," he said. "We know the intellectual honesty that he would bring to every issue that he decided."
In 1989, Chief Justice William Rehnquist named him chairman of the Federal Courts Study Committee. He was also honored for his contributions to judicial ethics, and chaired committees on improving court technology.
In 1993, he won the Devitt Award, considered the highest honor for federal judges, for his role in judicial administration.
Judge Weis also was the first recipient of Heinz History Center's History Maker Award (Government) in 1997. He was involved with the law schools at Duquesne and Pitt and was presented with Pitt's Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011.
In addition, he served as an adjunct professor at Pitt's law school and as a member of the advisory board of the school's Center for International Legal Education.
His Catholic faith was a fundamental part of his life and he served as a lector at St. Scholastica Parish, Aspinwall, for years. He was also a Knight of the Holy Order of Malta and a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Judge Weis also was a longtime member of the Pittsburgh Field Club.
Despite his accomplishments, Judge Weis remained unpretentious.
"He is, if anything, an overly modest and unassuming individual," Mark Nordenberg, Pitt's chancellor, said at the Devitt award ceremony in 1993. "People reporting on initial meetings with him invariably feel compelled to comment on just what a nice man he is."
In 1958, Mr. Weis married Peggy Horne, a stewardess from Morningside, and they moved to Fox Chapel, where the couple built a house and raised their three children. He and Peggy Weis, who later owned a travel agency with a friend, enjoyed tennis and golf and traveled the world together with friends and family. She died in 2012.
Judge Weis is survived by his children: Tracey Weis of Lancaster, Pa., Joseph III of Fox Chapel and Christine W. Grant of Boston. He is also survived by his sister, Mary, formerly of Monroeville, and brothers Thomas of Oakland and Daniel of North Hills.
Friends will be received from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Duquesne Club. Visitation is from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at McCabe Funeral Home in Shadyside. Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. at St. Scholastica Parish.
Judge Weis will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.