Judge James C. Crumlish Jr., 71

Posted: March 18, 1992

James C. Crumlish Jr., 71, former Philadelphia district attorney and longtime Commonwealth Court judge, died yesterday at his home in Hershey's Mill near West Chester.

Judge Crumlish served as district attorney from 1961 to 1966 and on the Commonwealth Court bench from 1970 until his retirement last year. He was president judge from 1980 to 1990.

He was the son of a distinguished Common Pleas Court judge, the late James C. Crumlish Sr., and was born to the bosom of city politics. He both served and was served by the Democratic organization, yet demonstrated repeatedly that he was his own man. Some of his rulings during his 21 years as a judge baffled and infuriated party honchos.

None caused more of a stir at City Hall than a ruling Judge Crumlish handed down in April 1981, drastically downgrading the salaries of some of the city's top Democratic officeholders.

Then-Sheriff Joseph A. Sullivan saw his $26,000 annual salary plummet to its 1947 level of $16,500. He reacted: "Everything Crumlish has got he got through the Democratic Party. He's been in the trough for what - 30 years?"

Disgruntled officeholders used the opportunity to take aim at Judge Crumlish's penchant for ornate prose and high-flown historical argument. Sullivan, for instance, said he had showed Judge Crumlish's ruling to a dozen other judges "and nobody can interpret this decision."

Other important rulings by Judge Crumlish rolled back state liquor store prices in 1980 and ordered Philadelphia's public-school teachers back to work after a 50-day strike in 1981.

He was also involved in the explosive pump issue in Bucks County. His rulings favored construction of a huge pump to supply water from the Delaware River to Philadelphia Electric's Limerick nuclear plant and to drought-prone communities in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

In that protracted case, he ruled in 1987 that the state Department of Environmental Resources could not block the pump's construction, and he wanted construction to continue while the state reviewed the need for the project. The state Supreme Court subsequently overturned Judge Crumlish's ruling and put construction on hold, but the project was ultimately approved and built.

Born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Germantown and Mount Airy. He was a graduate of La Salle High School and Georgetown University, and was attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Law when World War II broke out. Joining the Navy, he served as a senior line officer aboard the battleship USS Iowa. He took part in eight major battles and achieved the rank of lieutenant commander when he was only 25.

After his military discharge, he finished law school and was admitted to the bar in 1949. He engaged in the general practice of law, specializing in litigation. In 1952, he was appointed to the Philadelphia Registration

Commission.

He was a virtual unknown when, in March 1961, he was appointed district attorney to finish out the four-year term of Victor Blanc, who had been named a judge. Judge Crumlish owed the sudden advancement to Democratic City Committee Chairman William J. Green Jr.

He was elected to a full four-year term the following November. After weathering a withering series of "Jim who?" jokes, he settled in and ran an office that had a few scrapes with judges - including Victor Blanc. Some civic groups needled Judge Crumlish for alleged inactivity in the District Attorney's Office. He brushed it aside, saying the criticism smacked of ''partisan politics."

When State Attorney General Walter E. Alessandroni blasted Judge Crumlish's handling of a special grand jury probe, Judge Crumlish blasted back. Soon daily headlines told of Judge Crumlish's many battles with politicians big and small.

Running for re-election in 1966, he was crushed by Arlen Specter. He retreated to private practice, but became politically active again in 1968 as a representative for regional activities in Mayor James H.J. Tate's administration. He tried a run for a judgeship in 1969 but lost.

A year later, he was appointed by Gov. Raymond P. Shafer to the new Commonwealth Court. The terms of the new appointees were staggered, so he faced a retention election for the first time in 1977. He was re-elected to a second 10-year term in 1987.

Common Pleas Court Judge C. Craig Lord, Judge Crumlish's son-in-law, said yesterday: "One of his biggest achievements was that he was a very able administrator and created an administrative framework that enabled the court to be one of the most efficient and up-to-date in the country."

He was a member of the Fairmount Park Commission for many years, and was chairman of the National Council of Appellate Chief Judges.

Surviving are his wife, Rosemary C.; daughters, Rosemary Lord, Patricia Murphy and Frances Keating; sons, James C. 3d and T. Sean, and 11 grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be said at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Old St. Joseph's Church, Fourth and Walnut Streets, where friends may call at 9:15 a.m. Burial will be in Calvary Cemetery in West Conshohocken.

Contributions may be made to the Irish Education Development Fund, 315 E. 47th St., New York, N.Y. 10017.

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