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Robert Hallisey, lawyer and judge known for sharp wit, attention to detail

ROBERT J. HALLISEY

Before becoming a Superior Court judge, Robert Hallisey had a reputation as a lawyer who knew how to build a case and usually won.

“He was my first boss out of law school,’’ said Hiller Zobel, a retired Superior Court judge who went to work for Mr. Hallisey in 1959 as a young law firm associate. “The important thing was facts, and that’s what Hallisey wanted you to do, get the facts. He wanted the evidence, because that’s what won cases.’’

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No surprise, then, that when Mr. Hallisey was appointed to the bench, he developed just as rigorous a reputation.

“I am going to attempt to persuade the governor to appoint two judges on your retirement, which is the least that he can do for the loss of one Bob Hallisey,’’ Robert Steadman, then chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, wrote in a letter to Mr. Hallisey when he stepped down. “Your ability to manage a trial list is legend, and your reputation for handling complex litigation unparalleled.’’

Mr. Hallisey, who also taught at law schools and in his 70s returned to college to get a master’s degree, died Monday in Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88 and had lived much of his life in Winchester and Framingham.

“Judge Hallisey was a very talented trial judge,’’ said Barbara Rouse, current chief justice of the Superior Court. “Because of his experience as a trial attorney, he really did know the ins and outs of trials very well.’’

At the Boston firm Bingham, Dana & Gould, where he worked from 1954 until Governor Francis W. Sargent appointed him to the Superior Court bench in 1973, Mr. Hallisey “was a very good teacher and a very demanding boss,’’ Zobel said.

Having served in the US Navy in World War II and as a merchant marine for a short time later, Mr. Hallisey practiced admiralty law at the law firm, which Zobel said involved a lot of personal injury cases involving seamen hurt on the job.

The strict care Mr. Hallisey took with facts and evidence left him with a stellar record.

“He won more cases that he had no business winning and he lost fewer cases that he should have lost than any lawyer I’ve ever seen as a lawyer or a judge,’’ Zobel said.

Away from law offices and court, though, Mr. Hallisey often took a more relaxed approach to his daily schedule, whether with his family or pursuing his passion for sailing.

“He was so active and tried to squeeze in so much stuff every day that he ended up being terribly late for everything,’’ said his daughter Jill of Jamaica Plain. “He would go sailing and change into a tuxedo in the bathroom of the yacht club to go to a formal dinner. It made him notoriously late for everything. That was a hallmark: He would show up an hour late.’’

The older of two siblings, Robert Joseph Hallisey was born in Everett and grew up in Belmont, where he graduated from Belmont High School. His father was a civil engineer, trained at MIT, and his mother was an interior designer with clients on Beacon Hill.

He was part of the class of 1945 at Harvard College. Taking time off to serve in the Navy and as a merchant marine, he graduated in 1948. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1951, Mr. Hallisey moved to New York City and practiced admiralty law at Haight, Deming, Gardner, Poor & Havens, but missed Boston and switched to Bingham, Dana.

Mr. Hallisey often sent Zobel, his young assistant, to get statements from witnesses, and he offered tips on how to boost the credibility of the evidence.

“I remember him telling me once: ‘When you’re taking a statement, make sure you make a few mistakes on each page and get whoever you’re talking to initial the fixes. That way you have proof that he read every page,’ ’’ Zobel said.

In 1949, Mr. Hallisey married Emma Heine, with whom he had four children and lived in Winchester. Their marriage ended in divorce. She died in 2004.

He married Janet Harrington in 1973. They had a son and lived in Framingham. She died in 2008.

“Janet had multiple sclerosis, and he brought her everywhere, even on the sailboat when she was barely able to sit up,’’ Mr. Hallisey’s daughter said. “He was totally devoted and acted like there was nothing wrong.’’

Mr. Hallisey retired at the beginning of the 1990s. Having taught at Suffolk University Law School and Boston University School of Law, he received a master’s in judicial studies from the University of Nevada Reno. He also worked with the Boston firm Sally & Fitch.

Mr. Hallisey always kept a small fleet of cars, among them a green 1965 Ford Mustang.

“He always had a convertible,’’ his daughter said. “He had about five cars going at once. He loved sporty cars and used cars.’’

A service was held yesterday for Mr. Hallisey, who in addition to his daughter Jill, leaves another daughter, Lisbeth of Cambridge; three sons, Peter of Beverly, Robert Jr. of Stoneham, and Patrick of Worcester; a stepdaughter, Amy Brock of Lake George, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.

For a time, Mr. Hallisey and Zobel were on-call lawyers for editors and reporters at the Globe who had questions about potentially libelous articles.

“We were on the, ‘My God can we run this’ team,’’ Zobel said. “You’d get a call in the middle of the night, somebody would read you something, and say, ‘Is it OK to run this?’ You want to say yes, but you don’t want to get someone sued for a million bucks, either. That particular job is great training in intelligent courage. You had to be smart, but you had to have guts. And Hallisey certainly had guts.’’

That included Mr. Hallisey’s interactions with judges or state officials.

“He was very outspoken, as well, and was not afraid to speak his mind to the chief or to the governor,’’ Rouse said.

Still, she said, “he did have a devilish sense of humor.’’

“He was witty,’’ Zobel said. “He didn’t always carefully censor what he had to say, but he was on the ball in the best way.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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