Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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The career of William H. Comley as lawyer, state's attorney, judge of the Superior Court and state referee was pre-eminent in the history of this state. He was regarded by his contemporaries through the years as a leader of the Connecticut bar. He won this distinction by his broad knowledge of the law, his strong, positive character, and the rich human quality of his life.
Judge Comley was born in Bridgeport on October 12, 1875, the son of William H. and Lucy Nicholson Comley. He attended the public schools and was graduated from Yale College in 1897 and the Yale Law School in 1899. He was always an excellent student. After admission to the bar, he joined his father in the law firm of Comley and Comley in Bridgeport. This partnership included later a younger brother, Arthur M. Comley, and lasted, after the father's death, until 1919. In that year Judge Comley and his brother Arthur formed a partnership with Judge John S. Pullman under the name of Pullman and Comley. This association continued for twenty years until Judge Comley's appointment to the Superior Court bench in 1939. There were added to it during those years W. Parker Seeley, Raymond B. Baldwin, J. Kenneth Bradley and William R. Reeves. Judge Comley served as a judge of the city court of Bridgeport in 1905 and 1906. In 1914 he was elected to the state senate from the twenty-first district. This was the only time he sought elective public office. By nature he was disinclined to seek public favor, to be prominently mentioned in the press, or to aspire to fame. He was city attorney of Bridgeport from 1912 to 1920 and gave to that office the benefit of his sound judgment and unusual ability as a lawyer when the city was facing the problems arising out of the tremendous expansion which occurred during the first world war.
When Homer S. Cummings retired as state's attorney for Fairfield County in 1924, Chief Justice George W. Wheeler urged Judge Comley to take the appointment. He accepted and held that office until 1937. He was a vigorous, fearless and sagacious prosecutor, but he was also a very discerning one. While he pursued with keen, relentless energy those whom he thought guilty, there were many occasions when, prompted by his understanding sympathy, he asked the court's clemency for the unfortunate offender. He strove for justice tempered with mercy in the truest, finest sense of that familiar phrase. The eighteenth amendment was in force during most of the years when Judge Comley was state's attorney. Although he questioned the wisdom of this social experiment, he prosecuted unstintingly the violators of the prohibition laws. He was eminently successful in forestalling in his county the extensive racketeering which was rampant in other states. He was respected and feared by evildoers, and they avoided Fairfield County.
He was unexcelled as a trial lawyer. Neatly but plainly dressed, serene but forceful, soft-spoken, gentlemanly, with the appearance of a true scholar of the law, he was the central figure of every trial in which he took part. He was not dramatic. Without reference to notes he knew what the witnesses he produced would testify to, and he went directly to the central theme of his case. On cross-examination he never belabored a witness or asked a question when he was not reasonably sure what the answer would be. His memory of what had taken place during a trial included minute details, and his ability to formulate clear, concise questions, to which there could be but one unequivocal reply, was extraordinary. The careless, expansive, untruthful witness usually found his machinations shattered when Judge Comley had finished his cross-examination. The trial and appellate briefs by Judge Comley were clear and persuasive and written with careful attention to accurate literary composition. They read extremely well. His oral arguments when transposed from stenographic notes needed no editing. He loved his profession, and though he labored hard at his work, he enjoyed it. His wisdom and integrity as a lawyer inspired universal confidence. To mention but a handful of the cases, well known in their day, in which Judge Comley was counsel and helped to shape the law of the state, there were the criminal cases of State v. Wade, 96 Conn. 238; State v. Frost, 105 Conn. 326; State v. Ford, 109 Conn. 490, State v. Palko, 121 Conn. 669, 122 Conn. 529; and the civil cases of McKelvey v. Creevey, 72 Conn. 464; Weidlich v. New York, N.H.& H.R. Co., 93 Conn. 438; Torlonia v. Torlonia, 108 Conn. 292.
On the trial bench he presided with quiet dignity. Nothing escaped his attention. He asked few questions and left the direction of the trial to counsel. Lawyers appearing before him recognized and respected his legal learning. Very few of his rulings were ever successfully challenged. The memoranda of his decisions have literary merit. The findings he prepared for cases on appeal show a thorough knowledge of the rules of appellate procedure and are worthy models to follow.
Meeting Judge Comley in his office or at the courthouse, one might have thought him a bit reserved, a man who lived apart from any circle of genial acquaintances and friends and who lacked activities outside his profession. His friends knew otherwise. In high school, he was a good athlete and played both football and baseball. In his early life he was accounted good at tennis and he played golf. He gave up the latter game, so the story goes, with the facetious statement that having completed, after many attempts, every hole of a nine-hole course in par, he had done all that the experts could expect and needed to pursue the game no further. He loved ships and the sea and with his wife and children took many voyages to out-of-the-way places. After he was fifty years old, he purchased a schooner yacht and with his family, especially his son, and a few friends, participated in long-distance races. A cruise around Long Island and another down the Maine coast were annual events for many years. He was always a generous host and a delightful companion. His keen wit and sense of humor evoked merriment on many a social occasion. He read widely and could recount in a most interesting way passages from the leading English authors, with whose writings he was very familiar. Thackeray was one of his favorites. While he played no musical instrument, he enjoyed music and he knew the works of the great composers sufficiently well to discuss them interestingly.
Judge Comley held strong convictions, but he was never opinionated. He was always generous and tolerant and did not assume to be, though he truly was, a man of broad learning within and without the law, a cultured gentleman. He had many friends and a host of admirers. His enemies, if he had any, were such as any good and true man should have. Throughout his life Judge Comley attended the Episcopal Church regularly. For many years he was warden of St. Paul's Church in Bridgeport and superintendent of its Sunday school. When he moved from East Bridgeport to Brooklawn Park in 1924, he joined Trinity parish and was a regular attendant at services there.
Judge Comley took pride and delight in his family. In 1902 he was married to Maud B. Skidmore. Three children were born to them: Marion, Isabel and Frederick L. Comley. Father, mother and children found their greatest pleasure in their family circle. On evenings, week ends, vacation times, especially in the children's younger years, they were usually together. Judge Comley always maintained strong bonds of affection and association with his two sisters, Iris B. Comley and Ida May Comley Provost, and his two brothers, Arthur M. and John M. Comley.
Upon reaching the age of retirement on October 12, 1945, Judge Comley left the bench in New Haven, where he had first sat as a Superior Court judge. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Judge John M. Comley. During the succeeding years, when he was a state referee, he could be found daily at the courthouse. Lawyers were always highly pleased when their cases were referred to him. He kept diligently to his task as a referee until, ill health overtaking him, he resigned himself with faith and fortitude to the inevitable and came to the courthouse no more. He died at his home in Fairfield on April 28, 1955.
"As the last bell struck, a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted up his head a little, and quickly said, `Adsum!' and fell back. It was the word we used at school, when names were called; and lo, he, whose heart was as that of a little child, had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of The Master." *
*Thackeray, The Newcomes, bk. i, c. 80.[footer.htm]