John Patrick Fullam Obituary

Wallingford resident, John Patrick Fullam, aged 96, died peacefully in March. A judge for more than 50 years, including nearly 45 on the federal bench, he was among the longest serving federal judges in history. To his friends, family and former colleagues John will be remembered for his razor-sharp intelligence, wry humor and profound commitment to justice and equality under the law. 

The youngest son of Thomas and Mary Nolan Fullam, John was born December 10, 1921 in the family farmhouse in Gardenville, Bucks County. Though he grew up without running water, electricity or other modern amenities, his depression-era childhood was rich in many less tangible but more durable ways. An eager and precocious learner at the one-room Gardenville schoolhouse, John was rapidly promoted two grades and frequently called upon by the teacher to tutor other students.

Following primary school, John rode his bicycle seven miles each way to attend Doylestown High School, where he thrived academically, graduating in 1938 at the age of 16. John was especially proud to have won the Bucks County spelling bee championship, a contest aired on local radio; his orthographic prowess proved to be a lifelong trait. After high school, John received a full scholarship to Villanova College (now University), where he majored in Latin and Education, graduating at the top of his class. 

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated the United States’ entry into World War II, and John enlisted in the Navy upon his graduation from Villanova in the spring of 1942, at the age of 20. He was commissioned an Ensign and completed basic officer training on the campus of Cornell University, followed by further specialized training in communications at Harvard University, before his assignment as Communications Officer to the USS Guadalupe (AO-32) in January 1943. John was to remain with the crew of the Guadalupe, as Communications Officer and later as Navigator for the duration of the war and early post-war occupation, spending more than three years in the Pacific and participating in virtually all of the major Asiatic Pacific Campaign Operations. 

Over this period, John was awarded eight bronze battle stars for meritorious service in a combat zone, arising from the Guadalupe’s role in the Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Asiatic-Pacific Raids, Western New Guinea, Marianas, Western Caroline Islands, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa Gunto Operations. With characteristic humility and breathtaking understatement, John later summed up these years of Naval service for a 2007 oral history as follows: “During that time I experienced four typhoons and a few tense moments.”

Upon his discharge from the Navy in April 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant Senior Grade, John attended Harvard Law School on the GI bill; through an accelerated program for returning veterans, he was able to complete his law degree in 1948. While at Harvard, John met his future wife, Radcliffe undergraduate Alice Freiheit, at a sponsored, alphabetically-arranged tea. The couple married in 1950 and moved to Lower Bucks County, where John had joined the Bristol law firm of Eastburn, Begley and Fullam. John’s private practice was wide-ranging, affording him the opportunity to refine a unique blend of high-brow Harvard legal education and rural, homespun common sense. John’s practice included representing clients before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and service as court appointed counsel in a death penalty case (resulting in a life sentence), among many other interesting matters. 

In 1954 and again in 1956, John ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the Democratic ticket, ultimately falling short in the heavily Republican Bucks and Lehigh County district, despite the support of luminaries such as Oscar Hammerstein, James Michener, Joe Clark and Adlai Stevenson. Later in the 1950s John was appointed to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, eventually serving as its chair, and was credited with effectively cleaning up that formerly scandal-plagued body.

With two daughters and more children contemplated, John and Alice were able to persuade the up-and-coming architect Paul Rudolph to design an airy modernist home for them of glass and stone, set into a hillside in the woods of then rural Wrightstown Township — what one critic has since admiringly described as “probably the only example of a modernist Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse.” 

John impressed Mr. Rudolph with his masonry skill and aesthetic, and Rudolph designed the home accordingly. Continuing long after they moved into the unfinished home in March 1959, John patiently did virtually all of the stonework up through the first level.

Scarcely a mile down the road from the small farmhouse where John’s mother was born back in 1882, the couple’s Wrightstown house from its inception was the family’s homestead, a status it would retain for nearly 50 years. John was a farm boy to his marrow, Alice was an early and avid proponent of organic gardening. As result, the early years in Wrightstown were populated by numerous goats, rabbits, chickens and an occasional pony, along with his beloved dogs and a succession of cats. Sadly, the persistent and growing demands of John’s career obliged him to curb his adventures in animal husbandry, when he no longer had the time to milk the goats before heading in to the office each morning.

In February 1960, John was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, and was thereafter elected to full ten-year term, with the endorsement of both parties, thus becoming, in the colorful phrase of one local historian, “the first Democrat to have won election to the Bucks County Court since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”

During these years John became an active member of Wrightstown Friends Meeting, also serving on the Board of Pearl Buck’s Welcome House. In one of his most enduring contributions, John spearheaded the successful drive to establish the Bucks County Community College, only the second such institution in the State of Pennsylvania, serving as chairman of the Board of Trustees upon its founding in 1964. In the early going, John was known to offer encouragement and dispel dissension by leading board members in singing the civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome. Many years later, in 2014, John was pleased to attend the College’s 50th anniversary celebration, by which time BCCC had served more than 200,000 students.

Nominated by President Lyndon Johnson, John was confirmed as a United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in August of 1966, the first federal judge to hail from Bucks County. John’s subsequent continuous service in that role — from his August 1966 swearing-in to his April 2011 retirement — is the longest tenure of any judge of that court since its founding on September 24, 1789, with George Washington’s appointment of Declaration of Independence signatory Francis Hopkinson to that office.

On the federal bench, John quickly made his mark by seeking ways to reduce the Court’s extensive backlog of cases. Keenly aware of the prevailing billable hour fee system, John developed a strong aversion to wasted time and associated unnecessary cost to the parties. Throughout his judicial career, John strongly encouraged lawyers to be clear and concise in their arguments — memorably directing a lawyer at one hearing to kindly “distinguish between a cross-examination and a filibuster.” 

Guided by a keen intellect and steady moral compass, throughout his judicial career John was unafraid to make controversial decisions if he deemed them to be correct. This judicial courage enabled him to be a consistent champion of civil rights and liberties — while also rendering him for many years the bane of the Philadelphia Police Department. John issued important rulings, civil and criminal, giving full and principled effect to the Constitutional freedoms and protections to which every person is entitled. For example, Judge Fullam held that the Philadelphia Police were “totally unjustified” in conducting mass arrests of hippies in public parks during the summer of 1967, based solely on their perceived status or appearance: “It is not a crime to be a hippy.” To like effect, the Judge ruled that the Philadelphia Police had acted unconstitutionally by raiding Black Panther Party offices without probable cause in the summer of 1970. Though ultimately overturned by a divided Supreme Court, in Rizzo v. Goode, Judge Fullam’s lucid, meticulous and scrupulously balanced 1973 decision established civilian complaint procedures and other due process protections in order to remedy the Philadelphia Police Department’s shameful and persistent pattern of racial discrimination and abuse. 

In another controversial decision, arising from the FBI’s “Abscam” sting operation, Judge Fullam presided over the jury trial of two Philadelphia City Councilmen and others being prosecuted for public corruption. Reversed on appeal though effectively vindicated by history, Judge Fullam concluded that the defendants had been entrapped by improper governmental conduct amounting to a violation of due process: “In the long run, the rights of all citizens not to be led into criminal activity by governmental overreaching will remain secure only so long as the courts stand ready to vindicate those rights in every case.”

Where warranted, Judge Fullam was by no means averse to the firm enforcement of criminal laws. He took particular offense at the abuse of public office, overseeing the trials and ultimate convictions of numerous politicians and other officials over the years. He was also the first judge to preside over the trial and conviction of mob boss, Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, imposing a 14-year prison sentence following Mr. Scarfo’s conviction on fraud and racketeering charges.

In June of 1970, Judge Fullam was assigned the bankruptcy case for the Penn Central Transportation Company, at that time the largest corporate bankruptcy in history. Penn Central employed some 100,000 workers, owned more than 20,000 miles of track, and was indebted to tens of thousands of creditors. Undaunted, Judge Fullam tackled the enormously complex, politically-charged challenges of the company’s reorganization with a steadfast confidence over many years, making new law in countless previously uncharted areas. Judge Fullam approved the company’s plan of reorganization in 1978 — a feat that some had predicted might well require 30 years. That was by no means the end of the bankruptcy proceeding, however, and Judge Fullam ultimately issued more than 4,000 orders in the case. Judge Fullam’s oversight was instrumental in the creation and development of Amtrak and Conrail, as well as SEPTA and other regional mass transit authorities. His rulings and the lessons learned from the Penn Central proceedings were vital to subsequent Congressional fashioning of the United States Bankruptcy Code.

Beyond his judicial caseload, Judge Fullam performed a number of significant auxiliary functions. In recognition of his sterling character and integrity, Judge Fullam was appointed by the Chief Justice and served for many years on the Committee on Codes of Conduct of the United States Judicial Conference, advising fellow federal judges on issues of judicial ethics. Sharing expertise accumulated over his illustrious career, Judge Fullam also supplied guidance and instruction on federal rules of evidence and effective trial conduct to a generation of federal judges, through the Federal Judicial Center’s Orientation Program for New U.S. District Judges. And following the collapse of the Soviet Union, at the behest of the United States Information Agency (an arm of the State Department), Judge Fullam twice traveled to fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe, where he advocated for the importance of an independent judiciary in Hungary, and helped to write the new Constitution of Bulgaria. The Judge later took similar trips for the USIA to the African countries of Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

After serving as Chief Judge of the Eastern District from 1986-1990, Judge Fullam assumed senior status, continuing to carry a full caseload for another two decades, until fully retiring from the bench in 2011, at the age of 89. In what spare time he had, John enjoyed many hobbies over the years, including tennis, golf, bridge and singing. He had a deep love of the English language and a penchant for puns and word-play, frequently writing humorous poems to mark occasions. He also completed New York Times’ crossword puzzles with swift assurance — in ink. 

In 2007, John and Alice left their cherished Wrightstown home and moved to Plush Mills Senior Living in Wallingford, where they were joined by Alice’s younger sister, Audrey Paris (who continues to reside there). Alice, a retired librarian, died in 2016. John’s three siblings, James, Catherine and Thomas all predeceased him as well. In addition to his sister-in-law Audrey, John is survived by daughters, Nancy of Philadelphia and Sally (Joseph Gyourko) of Swarthmore; sons Thomas “T.J.” (Claudia Fieo) of Mansfield, Mass., and Jeffrey (Melissa Mandrell) of Concord, N. H.; and grandchildren Mark and Julia Gyourko, and Gregory and Lily Anna Fullam.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 21, at 11 a.m., at Wrightstown Friends Meeting, 535 Durham Road (Route 413), Newtown, PA.

A scholarship fund in John and Alice’s memory has been established at Bucks County Community College. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the “John and Alice Fullam Memorial Scholarship Fund,” c/o The Bucks County Community College Foundation, 275 Swamp Road, Newtown, PA 18940.

Leave a Reply