A local judicial icon worked for the people until the almost minute he succumbed.
Four days ago, U.S. Middle District Court Senior Judge Malcolm Muir, who died Friday at age 96, was busy in his chambers working on Social Security appeal cases, according to court officials and colleagues.
"He told me last month, I am working on these cases because these are the people who need it most," said Attorney Clifford Rieders, who was a close confidant and former law clerk of Muir's.
U.S. District Senior Judge Malcolm Muir administers the oath of allegiance during a Naturalization Ceremony in May 2009. Muir, who died Friday at age 96, worked continuously through life, up until Tuesday, according to federal court officials.
With the passing of Muir, the mood inside the federal courthouse in Williamsport was somber.
"It was somber because they knew he was working up to the last moment," Rieders said.
Muir was stricken Tuesday afternoon while he was in his chambers working on the cases, court officials confirmed.
"He was unsnarling a bureaucratic nightmare," Rieders said. "That's why the mood is somber. ... He could have sat home as a senior federal judge entitled to full pay and benefits. But he never retired. Instead, he worked to the maximum extent of his ability."
Rieders said Muir told him Social Security appeals are for those most in need.
"He was proud he could get those cases promptly decided after years of bureaucratic delay."
Indeed, several long and drawn faces were noticeable in the courthouse and there was a palpable stillness in the air.
Their fellow colleague and friend was gone.
"He passed away the way he wanted to, surrounded by his family," court officials said. Muir died 2:20 a.m. at the Gatehouse hospice.
Last December, U.S. District Senior Judge James F. McClure Jr. died at age 79.
He, also, worked at the courthouse until he became ill, according to court officials.
Muir's colleagues recalled a man who was influential to them because of his expressed commitment to excellence. That, and a work ethic, which was hard to emulate.
"He worked harder in his 90s than most public servants work in their 20s," said Lycoming County Judge Dudley N. Anderson.
"He was the kind of judge that all of us would like to be."
U.S. Attorney Peter J. Smith expressed condolences on behalf of the staff. Smith said he considered Muir to be a "pillar of the federal judiciary."
"Every lawyer, and particularly assistant U.S. Attorneys, appearing in his courtroom knew at all times that what was expected of them was their personal and professional best on behalf of their clients and as officers of the court," Smith said. "The term 'Your Honor,' seems to have devised with this wise, hard working and remarkable public servant in mind."
The files are filled with cases Muir was working on, court officials said.
In fact, the court employees provided statistics to the Sun-Gazette that Muir presided over 90 percent of the Social Security appeals before the court.
Muir's last criminal trial was in 2007, court records showed, but he took pleasure in overseeing the naturalization services.
"He did that until 2010," employees said.
Senior Potter County Judge John Leete, who was in Lycoming County for a trial, described Muir as "totally dedicated."
"He was an incredible public servant," Leete said. "There are fewer hardworking judges with as much precision."
Former law clerks expressed their sorrow, but also spoke about how much he influenced their careers.
"I clerked for the judge," said D. Toni Byrd, Assistant U.S. Public Defender for the Middle District. "He was a tremendous influence on my life and career. It is fair to say he was well respected by this office."
Byrd declined to elaborate but two other attorneys who were clerks for Muir described his analytical mind.
"Muir's influence was in terms of his ability to organize and process work with remarkable precision and speed," said Rieders, who was in court Friday with law firm partner Jack Humphrey, both of whom served as Muir's law clerks.
"We were in federal court before Judge Christopher C. Connor sitting at the "courthouse that Muir built," Rieders said.
Muir had a part in both of the attorneys practicing law in Williamsport. Both men shared the same law professor, Roy Shotland, who taught Humphrey while he attended the University of Virginia Law School and Rieders at Georgetown University.
"Shotland recommended Jack for Muir and me for Muir," Rieders said.
According to Rieders, Muir designed the system that many federal judges and state courts use of immediately posting a case to a trial list.
Today, because the courts adopted many of Muir's approaches, a better and formalized system exists for federal rules and civil procedures.
Muir gave law clerks "impressive responsibility," he said.
"He relied heavily on his law clerks and included us in the decision-making process," Rieders said. "Those who practiced law before him, as I told Sen. Arlen Specter once, we're 'forged on the anvil of excellence.' "
It was reported once Muir said he would rather try a case than cruise down the Danube River. On his 90th birthday, Muir invited judges from the district to hold trial and he acted as the defendant. The case was presided over by Judge William J. Nealon.
"Muir started out as a federal estate tax lawyer who had a sense of how matters were to be done," Humphrey said. "His ideas made him a pioneer in our modern court system."
When Muir was appointed judge by President Richard M. Nixon on Nov. 6, 1970, the federal court system was in disarray, Humphrey said.
"Whether you agreed with him or not he knew how to make decisions and he made them and stood by them," Rieders said. "Muir demanded excellence of everyone who practiced in front of him, even down to grammar," he said.
"He was an intrepid story-teller," Rieders said, a man with a "terrific sense of humor, great intellect and decisiveness."
Muir was able to get cases more quickly to trial. He was innovative by giving litigants and attorneys specific scheduling orders, setting deadlines and began issuing special verdict questions enabling juries to answer specific factual questions pertaining to the cases and those answers were molded into a verdict by the court, Humphrey said.
"I could go on and on," Humphrey said. "He was constantly trying to improve his courtroom and also the system as a whole, primarily through example."
Earlier this year, Muir was guest of honor at the Lycoming Law Association annual dinner at the Williamsport Country Club. Having celebrated his 40th year as a federal judge, Muir was the nation's fourth oldest judge and longest tenured member of the association.
His clerks also hosted a dinner for him at The Ross Club in September last year, clerks office employees said.
"People arrived from far and wide," she said.
"He established the careers of many eminent legal minds," Humphrey said.
Muir formed The Lycoming Reporter in 1946 for members of the American Bar Association. Today, it is a source of income for the Lycoming Law Association because of advertisements placed in it and the association can have an executive director and has organizational structure.
Born in Englewood, N.J., Muir's family moved to this city and resided at 610 Glenwood Ave. In December 1941, the Muirs were living in a city apartment when war broke out. Muir joined the Navy in 1942 and went off to the war effort. His first son arrived soon afterward. Following the war, Muir returned and resumed his law career.
"I worked extremely hard," he once told the Sun-Gazette in an interview he conducted at age 95.
In the story, Muir described a typical work day as beginning with his arrival at his city law office about 4:30 a.m. and lasting until 5 p.m.
"I told him, 'the taxpayers got their money's worth with you," Rieders said.