Reflections on Professor Joseph C. Sweeney, Fordham Law School, Captain, Judge Advocate Generals Corps, US Naval Reserve Retired 1933-2020


We mark a sad day in the history of Fordham Law School; Joe Sweeney a titanic figure in the legal profession, particularly the New York Admiralty bar, has left us at age 87.  For me, Joe was more than a teacher, legal scholar, and mentor; he was my predecessor in the Admiralty Course that he created and taught for more than 40 years. Joe was a Naval Reserve commanding officer, shipmate but most importantly he taught my daughter, Mary Kate Brennan (JD 2012, LLM 2017) and was instrumental in her decision to become a Double Ram.

Joe Sweeney not only knew the law; he loved teaching the law. Following Boston Latin School he graduated from Harvard College in 1954. Then after graduating from Boston University Law School in 1957 he joined the U.S. Navy completing Officer Candidate School and then the Naval Justice School, both in Newport. His initial assignment was at Naval Air Station Brunswick, Georgia. Joe was transferred to Newport and provided legal assistance to Cruiser-Destroyer Force Atlantic. His professorial experience began at the Naval Justice School, Newport Rhode Island. Then he left active duty in the U.S. Navy and received his LL.M. from Columbia Law School before joining the New York admiralty firm, Haight, Gardner, Poor, & Havens where his practice primarily focused on admiralty casualty (collision) litigation, under the legendary Charles S. Haight from 1962 until 1966. That year, Dean Mulligan invited Professor Sweeney to teach at Fordham Law School where he contributed to the academic life at Lincoln Center for more than half a century. Known as “Joe Boats,” Professor Sweeney held the Emory S. Land Chair of Merchant Marine Affairs as Visiting Professor at the Naval War College, Newport. Joe Sweeney’s admiralty students have been leaders in the New York admiralty bar for decades. While his active classroom teaching time ended in 2013, Joe continued writing and researching until the end of his life.

After law school and a few years on active duty, including the Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission, I again had the great good fortune to know Joe, and his wife, Alice, through years together in the U.S. Naval Reserve International Law program. Working with Joe on articles about the Law of the Sea and the Law of the Sea Convention during our weeks at the Pentagon was an invaluable experience-a post-graduate course in researching, learning the nuances of the law, applying it, and drafting a comprehensive and understandable memo for lawyers and their demanding clients. Social events with Alice and Joe are among the fondest memories. They always were interested in our Navy group and families. At a county fair on the Cape, Alice took my adventurous younger daughter, Elizabeth, on a massive Ferris wheel, while Joe, Mary Kate, and I remained firmly set on the earth.

Joe had a vast range of knowledge and interests. He was a student of many other subjects: International Law, Supreme Court History, Aviation Law (now taught by Steve Fearon), fine wine, language, history, politics, theology and the Boston Red Sox.

Captain Sweeney served five years on active duty (1957-1962) and continued his career in the U.S. Naval Reserve for a total of more than 30 years before being transferred to the retired list. He served on U.S. delegations to International Conventions and U.N. organizations. Professor Sweeney was the founding faculty advisor to the Fordham International Law Journal and holder of the John D. Calamari Chair.

Generations of Fordham Law students owe much of their professional success to the knowledge and skills communicated by Joe Sweeney. We are sad momentarily for our loss but are eternally richer and happier for the contributions Joe made to so many facets of our lives.

Pax vobiscum


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