Metro

Peter W. Kilborn, 81; former chief justice of Massachusetts Land Court

Mr. Kilborn was appointed to the court after a long career in real estate law.
Mr. Kilborn was appointed to the court after a long career in real estate law.

Peter W. Kilborn’s decisions amid bitter fights in Massachusetts Land Court over beach access rights, zoning kerfuffles, and foreclosures could sometimes rankle, but his courtroom demeanor usually soothed.

“He was known for being incredibly kind and patient,” said Karyn Scheier, who succeeded Mr. Kilborn as chief justice of the court. “He just had the perfect temperament from the bench, especially with self-represented litigants. He gave people the time they needed to be heard.”

Mr. Kilborn, who served on the court for 17 years and was chief justice until 2003, died Dec. 28 after a stroke at Brookhaven at Lexington, where he lived. He was 81 and a former longtime Newton resident.

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Appointed to the court by Governor Michael S. Dukakis after a long career in real estate law, Mr. Kilborn made headlines in retirement when he served as a hearing officer for the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

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In 2007, he recommended a public reprimand for Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy, who had sent two letters, including one on courthouse stationery, to Patrick Purcell, the publisher of the Boston Herald. Murphy had won a libel case against the Herald and in the letters he urged Purcell to not appeal the verdict. Murphy also ordered Purcell to deliver a check for $3.26 million.

In his report, Mr. Kilborn called the letters “improper in tone and content” and dismissed Murphy’s contention that the language represented merely a colorful style. “The style may be part of what got the judge in trouble,” Mr. Kilborn wrote.

Mr. Kilborn acknowledged in the report that Murphy endured stress after the Herald published stories, citing anonymous sources, that contended that Murphy instructed lawyers during a conference in his chambers to tell a 14-year-old rape victim to “get over it.” Disputing the coverage, Murphy successfully sued for libel and the verdict was upheld. Murphy has said the Herald’s coverage prompted death threats and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Judicial Conduct Commission recommended a $25,000 fine and 30-day suspension. Ultimately, the state Supreme Judicial Court opted for the public reprimand.

“It’s hard to explain this without sounding corny, but he was just an extraordinarily kind person,” said Boston attorney Roy A. Hammer of Hemenway & Barnes, who became friends with Mr. Kilborn in 1960 when they took a review class in preparation for the bar exam.

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“We disagreed about many things and if he thought someone was wrong about something, he didn’t hesitate to tell them that, but he never said anything that was unkind,” Hammer said.

The two were classmates at Harvard Law School but didn’t become friends until the bar exam. During breaks in the review class, they ate lunch together on Boston Common and played Frisbee.

A lifelong friendship was forged when Mr. Kilborn volunteered to help Hammer and his wife move out of a fifth-floor walk-up apartment. Hammer later returned the favor by helping Mr. Kilborn and his wife, Jane, with a move.

Mr. Kilborn was known for his concise and precise legal writings, according to colleagues. He mentored many law clerks over the years and sought revisions if they produced flabby prose.

He took classes in German late in life, his family said, and enjoyed reading German literature and conversing in the language when he and his wife traveled in Europe with friends.

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The judge’s ability to juggle the demands of the court and remain organized impressed colleagues. “He’s the only judge I’ve met who always had a clean desk at the end of the day. It was something for the rest of us to aspire to,” Scheier said.

In 2002, Mr. Kilborn shook up leaders of the town of Bellingham when he invalidated a 1997 rezoning decision and rejected the town’s acceptance of $8 million for a new high school from a power company seeking to build a plant. The Supreme Judicial Court later overturned his ruling.

In a separate decision, Mr. Kilborn ended a long-running battle between neighbors over beach access in the Brier Neck section of Gloucester. He ruled plaintiffs had the right to reach the water for “fishing, fowling, and navigation” but could not use the beach on either side of the narrow walkway.

Raised in Portland, Maine, Mr. Kilborn was an only child born into a family whose name was long associated with the sale of fine carpets, dating back to the 1860s, when W.T. Kilborn & Co. opened in Portland.

His father continued the family business by selling fine furniture and his mother worked as a bank teller.

Mr. Kilborn graduated from Tabor Academy and in 1955 received a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University, where he met Jane McIntyre. A friend who lived in her dorm at Radcliffe College set them up on a date in the fall of 1952. They married in 1956.

“We just seemed to have a lot of interests in common,” she said. “He was somebody with whom you could talk nonstop. He was gentle, kind, and thoughtful — not that I always agreed with him — but he was always exceedingly kind.”

After Harvard, Mr. Kilborn served the next two years in the Army, where he was a first lieutenant and worked in counterintelligence, his wife said.

Judge Kilborn graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960. He worked at the Boston firms Tyler & Reynolds, Mintz, Levin & Cohn, and Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster, where he became partner in 1972 and was managing director.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Kilborn leaves two sons, John of Winchester and James of Roseville, Minn.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

“He really gave me a great love for the outdoors,” said his son John, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency who recalled family hikes in the White Mountains and canoe trips in Minnesota. “Those are memories that will last me a lifetime.”

John said his father encouraged him to pursue a career in the law, but “didn’t push me.”

“He was a serious man, but he was also practical, detailed, and precise,” John said. “He never lost sight of the bigger picture, and I think he was dedicated as a judge to resolving disputes quickly, fairly, and firmly.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.