Cornelius F. Kiernan (1917-1996)

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Cornelius F. Kiernan (1917-1996)

The Lowell Justice Center was formally dedicated to former Judge and State Representative Cornelius F. Kiernan (1917-1996) on Friday, September 15, 2023. Here is a brief sketch of Kiernan’s life and accomplishments.   

Cornelius F. Kiernan was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on August 15, 1917. His parents, William R. Kiernan and Anna G. Doyle, were both born in Lowell in the early 1880s. Anna’s parents had both come to Lowell from Ireland. William’s father, John J. Kiernan, was born in Rhode Island, and his mother, Margaret E. Russell, was born in Northboro, Massachusetts. Cornelius Kiernan’s great grandfather, Patrick Kiernan, was born in Ireland. It is unclear where his other great grandparents were born.

Cornelius’s father was a pharmacist who owned Kiernan’s drug store at the corner of Broadway and School streets in the Acre neighborhood of Lowell. His mother, Anna (Doyle) Kiernan, was a homemaker. The family lived at 22 Phillips Street which was just a block away from the drug store. Anna Kiernan purchased the property in her own name. (It was common for the female spouse of a male small business owner to take title to the family home individually, presumably as a hedge against debt or liability.)

Cornelius had six siblings.

John J. Kiernan, born in 1910, was a civil engineer who worked for the Massachusetts Department of Public Works. He died in 1987 at age 77.

William R. Kiernan Jr, born in 1912, was also a civil engineer with Mass DPW. He married Mary E. Sullivan. They lived in Chelmsford and had no children. William Jr. died in 1967 at age 55.

Anna C. Kiernan, born in 1915, became Sister Mary of the Incarnation Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity based in New Mexico. She died there in 2015 at age 99.

Mary E. Kiernan, born in 1919, married John H. Howland and lived in Windsor, Vermont. The Howlands had five children, William, John Jr., Glenn, Margo, and Mary Ann, who all appear to be living in 2023. Mary (Kiernan) Howland died in 2011 at age 82.

Joseph R. Kiernan, born in 1923, who lived and worked in various places in southern Massachusetts and in Connecticut. Joseph married Anne M. Hulse. They had three children: John, Joseph, and William. Joseph Kiernan died in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 2015, at age 92.

Alice G. Kiernan, born in 1921, was a professor of education at University of Massachusetts Lowell. She retired in 1983, and continued living in the family home on Phillips Street until just a few years before her death in 2018.

Cornelius graduated from St. Patrick’s School and from Lowell High School in the class of 1935. He was among the 859 graduates who received their diplomas from Mayor James J. Bruin on June 27, 1935, at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. He then studied law at Northeastern University in Boston, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1941. (The LL.B. was the standard degree awarded to law graduates until the mid-20th century when it was largely replaced by the Juris Doctor degree.)

While still at Northeastern, Kiernan registered for the draft in Lowell on October 16, 1940. He was 23 years old and still living at 22 Phillips Street. He listed his father as his contact person and wrote that he worked for Pease Motor Company at 614 Middlesex Street.

In March 1944, the Lowell Sun reported that Kiernan had passed the Massachusetts Bar, however, immediately after that he left for basic training in the U.S. Army where he was trained as a hospital lab technician (presumably because of his experience working in the family drug store). He was stationed in the Philippines during the war.

After his discharge from the Army, Kiernan returned to Lowell and opened a law office. He also got involved in politics, running successfully for the Lowell School Committee in 1947.

The 1947 city election was the third held under the Plan E form of government. Because the city used proportional representation (now known as ranked choice voting) to elect the Council and School Committee, there was no preliminary election. In analyzing the race in the days leading up to the November 4, 1947, city election, the Lowell Sun wrote, “Atty. Cornelius F. Kiernan is another young veteran who likewise appears worthy of consideration. Son of the well-known druggist on Broadway, he would win, and if he did there is nothing that we are aware of that would prevent him from making a good member of the board.”

Because the process of counting the votes under proportional representation took considerable time, it was not until November 11, 1947, a full week after the election, that poll workers even began counting the School Committee ballots. (The Council race was counted first.) Kiernan ran strong throughout the vote count, particularly in his home precinct where he received an overwhelming percentage of “number one” votes. In the final count, he finished third of the six members elected.

At the same time that Cornelius Kiernan was campaigning for Lowell School Committee, a special state-level committee released a legislative redistricting plan for the Commonwealth to take effect with the 1948 state election. Appointed by Governor Robert F. Bradford, a Republican, and wholeheartedly endorsed by the Republican-dominated state legislature, the new plan carved out a number of “safe” Republican districts.

Previously, Lowell had four representative districts, however, under this new alignment, there would be only two districts, one with three representatives, the other with two representatives. The new 15th district was seen to be strongly Democratic; while the new 14th district was expected to be even stronger for the Republicans. Kiernan, a Democrat, lived in the 14th district, yet he decided to run for state representative in that district in the 1948 state election even though the political prognosticators said he had no chance.

In the September 14, 1948, Democratic Primary, Cornelius Kiernan and former Representative George T. Walsh were the only candidates, so both were nominated. In the Republican primary, the nominees were current state representative Raymond J. Lord and newcomer Stanislas O. Paquin. Current representative George E. Marchand, who was expected to be one of the nominees, finished third, with Edmund J. Cheney and Henry N. Pelletier behind him.

After the September 8, 1948, Primary Election, the Lowell Sun wrote,

“In the heavily Republican 14th district it will be Republicans Raymond J. Lord and Stanislas O. Paquin against the two Democrats who were without opposition in their primary, Cornelius F. Kiernan and George T. Walsh. Mr. Lord should win easily, based on the vote he got Tuesday. Because of the structure of the district, Mr. Paquin, too should win, but Attorney Kiernan may give him a run for it.”

When the votes cast in the November 2, 1948, state election were counted, Kiernan had won:

“Kiernan, facing almost impossible odds in a district which had been redistricted to ease two Republicans into shoo-in victories on election day, was runner-up to Rep. Raymond A. Lord, who received a splendid indorsement of his record at the state house by leading the ticket. Lord, ignoring Republican leaders’ advice, had compiled a 100 percent labor record in his first term.

“The figures showed Lord receiving 9038 votes with Kiernan getting 8811. In the runner up slot was former Rep. George A. Walsh with 8655 while the second Republican nominee, Stanislaus O. Paquin, was in last place with 6563 votes.”

However, in the final tabulation of votes, Kiernan vaulted over Republican Ray Lord to finish first with 8,814 votes to Lord’s 8,732.

Kiernan not only remained on the Lowell School Committee during his first year in the House, he also ran for the Lowell City Council in the 1949 city election. However, in the sole defeat in his long electoral career, Kiernan was eliminated in the 32nd round of vote counting which placed him twelfth in a field of 45 candidates. Only the top nine would win.

The following year, Kiernan sought reelection to the 14th District representative seat. He won, a result he repeated every two years for the next quarter century.

Eight years later (1958) when John F. Thompson of Ludlow became Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he named Cornelius Kiernan as the Majority Leader, the second most powerful position in the House. Kiernan served in that role for the next four years.

However, in November 1962, Kiernan announced that he would run for Speaker which was controversial because Thompson had decided to seek another term as Speaker. Kiernan explained that in the spring of that year, Thompson told Kiernan that he would run for statewide office in that fall’s election, so Kiernan began enlisting support for the Speakership. At some point, Thompson changed his mind and decided to stay in the House but Kiernan, who had already obtained commitments, decided to stay in the race for Speaker.

Along with Kiernan and Thompson, six other representatives sought the Speakership, however, Thompson prevailed on the sixth ballot and was reelected. As would be expected, Kiernan lost his position as Majority Leader although he remained a member of the House.

Four years later in January 1965, when Thompson finally announced publicly that he was leaving the legislature, Kiernan again sought the Speakership. However, fellow representative John F. X. Davoren of Milford won the position. Kiernan explained that before the state election the previous fall, Gerard F. Doherty, the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and a supporter of Davoren, had given Davoren control of $30,000 in donations to be made to other state representative candidates, and that Davoren had used that carrot to win commitments from a majority of those elected to the House.

Whatever repercussions Kiernan faced for losing the Speakership, they were short-lived because the following year (1966), he was named chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, a position he held for the next eight years.

In December 1972, after Kiernan had been reelected to the legislature for his thirteenth term, the Lowell Sun reported “Kiernan downplays report he’s in line for judgeship.” The story explained that the November 1972 passage of a referendum that would require judges to retire at age 70 would create 38 judicial vacancies. Governor Frank Sargent was quoted as saying Kiernan had “been under consideration for some period of time” (for a judgeship).

At the Greater Lowell Bar Association’s mid-winter dinner at the Speare House on February 7, 1974, Governor Sargent made the surprise announcement that he would appointment Kiernan as a special justice at the Somerville District Court.

Kiernan was 56 years old and according to a subsequent Lowell Sun profile, he had “coveted” a judgeship “for several years.” He also listed what he considered his major accomplishments during his seven years as chair of the Judiciary Committee. These were:

  • Established intermediate appellate court
  • Wrote new rules of civil procedure for Superior Courts
  • Established Juvenile Courts in 4 locations
  • Initiated legal assistance for indigent and mentally ill
  • Required hospitals and doctors to report “battered children.”
  • Opposed No Fault divorce
  • Opposed abortion
  • Promoted state and federal Equal Rights Amendments
  • Changes in Jury duty
  • Advocated equal pay for equal work

On February 20, 1974, Kiernan’s nomination was approved by the Governor’s Council and on March 20, 1974, we was sworn in as Special Justice of the Somerville District Court. Later that year when an opening occurred in Lowell, Kiernan was appointed a Special Justice of the Lowell District Court.

Kiernan served for eight years as a judge, retiring in 1983 at age 65 due to poor health. However, he lived for another 13 years, dying on January 20, 1996. His funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Church in the Acre and he is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.


For details about the electoral accomplishments over the years, check out my “Kiernan Electoral Record” blog post from earlier this week.