John Connor, a third-generation lawyer and long-time judge known for his compassion, wit and sharp legal instinct, died Wednesday at age 78.
Connor was elected in 1992 to Franklin County Common Pleas Court, where he served for more than 16 years. He joined the Franklin County Court of Appeals in 2009 and retired five years ago.
“He was a wonderful guy to work with,” said Doug Eaton, appeals court administrator.
Trial court requires “snap decisions and that you be right 90 percent of the time,” said Eaton, “a skill set that he transferred to the appellate bench.”
“He had a feel for what was right or wrong, an inherent sense of justice and equity.”
Connor was right, almost always, Eaton said.
“He’d read the brief and he just knew where a case was going to go. He had a sense for the law that was just innate. He was just dead-on.”
Connor’s compassion stemmed from personal struggles.
He battled alcoholism and was arrested three times for drunken driving. He would have celebrated 16 years of sobriety Dec. 16, said one of his two daughters, Erin Winemiller.
In 2006, Connor came under fire for sentencing a convicted sex offender to probation instead of prison, prompting former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly to call him “the worst judge in America.”
Connor said he gave the offender probation and treatment based on recommendations from mental health experts and his belief that rehabilitation works.
“The governor called for my resignation, the attorney general was trying to impeach me,” Connor said at the time. “I got through it and the guy went through five years (of supervision) and never committed another offense.”
Connor personally invited O’Reilly to his retirement party. He didn’t show.
“I think he knew his own shortfalls and that made him try to better himself,” said Tiffany Barton, one of Connor’s secretaries.
Connor suffered recent strokes, but was regaining his strength until about a month ago when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I know he was ready,” said Winemiller. “He’s taught me, along with our Catholic faith, that when we go, we’re going for eternal life. And he was ready.”
In September, Connor, whose grandfather was admitted to the bar in 1904 and his father in 1939, visited Ireland with his daughters.
“It was amazing,” Winemiller said. “We had no idea he was sick. He had no idea.
“We were just kidding, why are we doing this now? This isn’t our Christmas money is it? Are you dying?”
“And he wasn’t. He had no idea,” she said.
“I truly believe that God had a hand in all this.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.