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Thomas Meskill, 79; served Conn. as governor, legislator

Thomas Meskill, a Republican, was governor of Connecticut in the early 1990s, then was named to the US court of appeals. Thomas Meskill, a Republican, was governor of Connecticut in the early 1990s, then was named to the US court of appeals. (ap file 2002)

HARTFORD - Thomas J. Meskill - a Connecticut Republican who overcame early political losses to become a respected congressman, governor, and federal judge - died of a heart attack early yesterday in Florida, his wife said. He was 79.

He had the blood disorder myelodysplasia and had gone to Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach, Fla., Sunday to have blood drawn, said his wife of 52 years, Mary. He died at the hospital at about 4 a.m.

"He was a powerhouse; that we know," Mary Meskill said in a phone interview from the couple's home in Delray Beach, Fla.

She said she was too distraught to answer questions. "We're grieving," she said.

The couple lived half the year in Florida and the remainder in Connecticut, at their home in Berlin.

Yesterday, Governor M. Jodi Rell ordered state and US flags lowered to half-staff to honor Mr. Meskill.

Former US Representative Nancy Johnson, a friend of Mr. Meskill's who is also from New Britain, said he transcended politics.

"It was a trust that he engendered in people and the quality of service that he provided that enabled him to be mayor and then congressman and then ultimately governor and judge," she said. "That is a quality that in today's world people are longing for."

Mr. Meskill was elected to Congress in 1966, representing northwestern Connecticut, and served until 1970.

He won the election for governor that year and became the state's 82d chief executive in January 1971, the first Republican to hold the office in 16 years.

In 1975, President Ford named him a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. He served full time until 1993, and was chief judge in his last year. He retained senior judge status until his death, which allowed him to remain on the court and work on some cases.

He kept his chambers in New Britain for the past several years and had been hearing appeals recently by telephone and video conferences, said Ann Schnitzke, his secretary for four decades. He was to hear an appeal by phone today.

Mr. Meskill endured losses early in his political career. He first ran for state Senate in 1958 and lost. The following year, he narrowly lost the New Britain mayoral election.

He ran for mayor again two years later and won, serving from 1962 to 1964. But in 1964 he lost his reelection bid in the spring and the Sixth Congressional District race in the fall.

When Mr. Meskill became governor in 1971, the state had a $260 million deficit. By 1973, it had a $65 million surplus.

During Mr. Meskill's tenure, the Department of Environmental Protection was established and a state lottery system was instituted as an alternative to a state income tax.

Although Republicans controlled both the House and Senate in the early 1970s, Mr. Meskill vetoed 253 bills during his four-year term, the most in recent memory.

A low point came in 1973, when he was widely criticized for not immediately rushing home from an out-of-state skiing trip during a major ice storm.

Mr. Meskill also faced adversity when he was nominated to the appeals court. The American Bar Association opposed his nomination, saying he didn't have the necessary legal experience.

But Congress confirmed Mr. Meskill, who was named an outstanding federal appellate judge by the American Association of Trial Lawyers in 1983.

He was born on Jan. 30, 1928. He graduated from New Britain Senior High School in 1946 and Trinity College in Hartford in 1950.

He enlisted in the US Air Force in September 1950 and served in Alaska during the Korean War. He attained the rank of first lieutenant before being discharged in 1953.

He went on to graduate from the University of Connecticut Law School in 1956, serving as editor of the Law Review in his senior year, and practiced law in New Britain.

During his tenure on the appeals court, Mr. Meskill provided dissenting opinions on several cases.

He disagreed with a 1990 ruling that said New York City could oust panhandlers from the subways because asking for money is not a protected form of speech. He said beggars deserved the same rights as organized charities, which were allowed to solicit in the subways.

He wrote a dissenting opinion when the Second Circuit ruled in 1995 that abortion clinics in Buffalo could keep protesters 15 feet away. He said protesters were picketing, passing out fliers, and speaking out "in the finest tradition of the First Amendment, hardly justifying so sweeping an abridgement of free speech."

He also disagreed with a 1989 decision that said the display of a 16-foot menorah in a park next to City Hall in Burlington, Vt., violated separation of church and state and was unconstitutional.

"The denial of permission to display the menorah would constitute unnecessary hostility toward religion," Mr. Meskill said.

Schnitzke, Mr. Meskill's secretary, described him as kind, thoughtful, and hardworking. "He really was a unique person," she said. "He had a really wonderful sense of humor, a really sharp mind, and he loved what he did."

A date for Mr. Meskill's funeral has not been set.

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