Before David A. McLaughlin became a Massachusetts Superior Court judge, he had a reputation as a dynamic trial attorney skilled at dismantling expert witnesses.
Jurors in one case thought that Judge McLaughlin, who had served in the Marine Corps in the early 1960s and was 6-foot-2, looked like actor John Wayne in a classic Western gun battle as he walked across the courtroom to cross-examine a witness.
That jury nicknamed him “The Duke,” one juror revealed after running into Mr. McLaughlin at a supermarket months after the verdict.
“He loved to try cases. He really respected the jury and the jury respected him,” said his former law partner, Michael McGlone.
Judge McLaughlin, who lived in New Bedford and was on the bench in Bristol County from 1999 until his retirement eight years ago, died Dec. 9 at Park Avenue Health Center in Arlington following a series of illnesses. He was 78.
Among the cases that made headlines in his courtroom, Judge McLaughlin ruled in 2004 that former Catholic priest James R. Porter was a “sexually dangerous person” and should remain in state custody after serving his sentence for molesting 28 children in the Fall River Diocese, beginning in the 1960s.
As a trial attorney, he had focused on civil cases and contract law. He also provided pro bono defense to indigent defendants in criminal cases.
“He was proud of his ability to capture the attention of a jury, tell them a story and make complicated factual scenarios more easily understood,” said his daughter Maura, a Boston attorney who focuses on employment law.
Former prosecutor and retired associate Superior Court judge Robert J. Kane recalled observing Judge McLaughlin in the courthouses of Bristol County over the years.
“I was always impressed with David’s command of the room. He was in control and the witnesses knew he was in control,” Kane said. “He loved the spoken and written word.”
Judge McLaughlin, the son of Irish immigrants, found presiding over naturalization ceremonies for new US citizens to be among the favorite parts of his work, his family said.
He also enjoyed staying close with his fellow Marines and launched a popular local party celebrating the birthday of the Marine Corps each year.
“If you asked him about his time as a judge, he wouldn’t tell you about a great opinion he wrote but about the tremendous hardships he witnessed and the stories of those who appeared before him,” his son Dr. Daniel McLaughlin said in a eulogy offered during a funeral Mass at Saint Lawrence Martyr Church in New Bedford.
He added that becoming a judge had a “profound impact” on his father. “It increased his empathy for those who were truly struggling. Those lost. Those with horribly Dickensian upbringings,” said Daniel, who lives in Nolanville, Texas. “It prompted him to have a softer, more compassionate, more empathetic outlook on life.”
A Saturday morning in 1965 sparked Judge McLaughlin’s legal career, according to his family. A few Marines were headed out to take the Law School Admission Test. He decided to tag along even though he had not studied. He scored well and was admitted to Boston College Law School that fall.
While there, Judge McLaughlin — who also had graduated from Boston College High School and from Boston College as an undergraduate — met Mary Alice Stephens, another first-year law student. They tried a case in the school’s moot court competition and found they made a good team. They married in 1968 and had six children.
In 1976, he and Mary Alice founded a law practice together as McLaughlin and McLaughlin. The firm later became McLaughlin, Folan and McGlone. The practice was known for its annual St. Patrick’s Day party and its sponsorship of a Little League baseball team. Players wore the logo “Mac and Jack” on their backs in honor of McLaughlin and partner Jack Folan.
Judge McLaughlin enjoyed growing roses and was a devoted student of Julia Child’s TV show “The French Chef.” He made “a mean mac and cheese,” cooked elaborate holiday dinners, and mastered bouillabaisse, according to his wife. “I was very spoiled,” Mary Alice said.
In his eulogy, Daniel noted that Judge McLaughlin “was boastful of his wife’s abilities as a student, lawyer, and mother and frequently referred to her as his better half, providing snowballs for him to throw in a snowball fight of life.”
Acknowledgment from Judge McLaughlin was often prefaced by his saying, “We’re Irish so we don’t show affection,” followed by effusive praise for the recipient, Daniel said.
Judge McLaughlin grew up in Jamaica Plain with two sisters and a cousin. His father, Daniel, was an engineer. According to family lore, his mother, the former Nora Mulrennan, worked as a domestic employee for a Newton family when she met Judge McLaughlin’s father. She had been watching a man on a construction crew outside the window when the lady of the house instructed her to take the man a cold beverage or she would be fired.
In addition to his wife, Mary Alice, his son Daniel, and his daughter Maura of Arlington, Judge McLaughlin leaves his daughters Jeanne and Sarah, both of New York City; his sons Michael of Portland, Ore., and Joseph of Stowe, Vt.; his sister, Elaine Crowley of Boston; and nine grandchildren.
Burial was in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
Daniel said one of his first childhood memories of his father was watching him battle the early hours of the Blizzard of ’78 on foot. His dad was on a mission to make it into town.
“The bluster of whipping snow was slashing at his face,” Daniel said. “He was heading downtown, undeterred and heroically, through the wind, determined to make sure his daughter Jeanne would have a birthday present on her sixth birthday.”
When Judge McLaughlin’s first grandchildren were born, the stoic Marine began to relax more, according to his family. His family was surprised one Christmas to see him playing and running down the hall chased by his 2-year-old grandson.
“He was free of his burdens and able to joyously experience the life of a grandfather. The life he and my mother had worked tirelessly for so many years to provide was being realized. His legacy would live on,” Daniel said.J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.