Click here if you don’t see subscription options
George M. AndersonJuly 05, 2010

It’s as much a part of me as my breath.” Those are the words Joseph (Joe) Cosgrove used in a recent interview to describe the strong sense of social justice that has been his since growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. It was a sense that led him into studying both law and theology at the University of Notre Dame as he increasingly became an advocate for “the outcast,” another phrase of his that came up in a recent conversation. These twin focus points were reinforced through his long-term friendship with the Jesuit peace activist, Daniel Berrigan, who officiated at Cosgrove’s wedding Mass. Yet another formative influence was the actor-activist Martin Sheen, like Fr. Berrigan a close friend. How did Cosgrove come to know two such remarkable figures, as well as Mother Teresa of Calcutta? And how did he also enter into the fields of acting and studio art?

The friendship with Martin Sheen began when the two were introduced by Fr. Berrigan when the actor was working on a social justice film (“You’ve got to meet this fellow,” Berrigan told Cosgrove). Later, Mr. Sheen was involved in a protest in New York against former President Reagan’s Star Wars project. The peaceful demonstration resulted in the arrest of Sheen, Berrigan, Cosgrove and others, all of whom Cosgrove offered to defend gratis in court. Cosgrove first became aware of Martin’s anti-death penalty views on seeing him play the lead in the film, “The Execution of Private Slovik.” Slovik was the only soldier in World War II executed for desertion, and the unjust way Slovik was treated nourished Cosgrove’s commitment to justice and opposition to the death penalty.

Defending the Poor

While pursuing joint degrees in law and theology at the University of Notre Dame (he received both degrees on the same day), Cosgrove’s mother fell ill with cancer. He knew that Fr. Berrigan at the time was working in Manhattan as a volunteer in a hospice for cancer patients. “A mutual friend put us in touch,” Cosgrove said, and he expressed gratitude for “Dan’s being so pastoral with me and my family in a difficult time.” But he added that even earlier, through a teacher at his Catholic high school, he felt an appreciation for Fr. Berrigan and his brother Philip for what he termed “their conscientious witness” during the Vietnam War.

Through their influence and that of others, Cosgrove began to develop a deep belief in God’s love for the disenfranchised of the world. The vast majority of his cases as a criminal defense attorney, he said, have been in the area of representing the poor. Aware that the resources available to public defenders are far more limited than those available to prosecutors (money for expert prosecutorial witnesses like psychiatrists, for example), Cosgrove has became a strong supporter of increased funding for the indigent defense system. “For the better part of the last ten years I’ve been shouting about this very issue,” said Cosgrove, who also serves as president of the Pennsylvania Defense Lawyers Association. “The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is a promise that has all too often not been fulfilled.”

The same impulse to see Christ in the poor brought Cosgrove into contact with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The two first met in the early 1990s. They spoke about capital punishment and the first Gulf War—to which, like Cosgrove, Mother Teresa was opposed. Cosgrove had written a brief discussing the international law implications of that war, he said, “and early one morning a priest who was talking with her in Rome called me and said, ‘Joe, Mother Teresa is on the line’, and there she was...” Later, Cosgrove would work with Blessed Mother Teresa on several death penalty cases.

Cosgrove has defended several people arrested at non-violent peace demonstrations, including Catholic Workers and activists like John Dear and Martin Sheen, for whom he has served as personal attorney. “My focus in peace activist cases, like many other matters in the criminal justice system, has been to uphold certain basic principles, like presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial--concepts that can be threatened in the heat of these cases,” he observed, “where public sentiment might be strongly against the defendants.” Otherwise, he continued, “the process isn’t fair and liberty is jeopardized.” 

A Role in ‘The West Wing’

It was Martin Sheen who first encouraged Cosgrove to act. He and Cosgrove were working on a project together, and met in Paris where Sheen was filming “The Maid.” Then, in an unexpected complication, an actor in the film abruptly quit on the last day of the filming, and, as Cosgrove explained, “I could speak English and so I got the part.” (This led to his membership in the Screen Actors Guild.) Some years later, when “The West Wing” was being made for television with little expectation that it would become the success it did, Cosgrove was offered a minor part. “I wondered how ‘West Wing’ would succeed. It had no romance, no violence, so how could it be a hit?” But, he went on to say, “it became one of the most well-written, well-acted dramas in television history.” Initially, he was simply asked to advise the producers on a legal issue that was in the script. When a particular Supreme Court issue came up, though, they not only sought him out for advice, but also “cast me as a lawyer in that episode.”

On the day it was filmed, he said, “my character was a Supreme Court attorney, who the reappeared in several later episodes, in 2000, 2001 and 2004.” He mentioned that Martin joked on the set in that episode, which was filmed on a stage in Burbank. After the filming (in which the Supreme Court denies Cosgrove’s motion), Sheen shouted, “You’re not acting! You’re in court and losing—you do that every day!” Cosgrove responded with equal humor, “I guess everybody’s a critic!”

Then as now, Cosgrove was teaching constitutional law at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he has held the position of adjunct professor of law for two decades. (One of his former students, Patrick J. Murphy, is a Democrat member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.) Last year, he offered a seminar on the Supreme Court that led to a visit with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “We studied a case that was coming up there, and so I took a group of the students to Washington to hear the oral arguments in the case,” Cosgrove said. Ginzberg invited the group to visit her afterwards in her chambers. Cosgrove had met her on several previous occasions and was himself co-counsel in a death penalty case six years ago, not as the lead counsel but as the “second chair.” Cosgrove was admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court on the motion of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, whose father was a Supreme Court justice and with whom Cosgrove had been co-counsel in a federal civil rights case in the past.

From Leprechaun to Judge

Besides his degrees in law and theology from Notre Dame, Joe also has a master’s degree in studio art from Marywood College in Scranton, Pa. He spoke of this aspect of his life as a manifestation of the optimism that infuses all that he does, “whether it’s the minor aspect like my occasional acting, or studying ceramic art.” Along with that hopefulness goes a sense of humor that carries with it a ministerial side. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, he became a costumed leprechaun mascot at sports events, moving along the sidelines to evoke spirited support for the home teams. He attributes the leprechaun role to his Irish heritage. “Every ethnic group brings something of value to the human community, and one of those things the Irish have brought is a sense of wit and wry humor that transcends even the tragedies of their sometimes historically difficult existence,” he said.

Cosgrove’s turn as a leprechaun put him in contact with Special Olympics and special education groups that were often present both at the sports events and at the Logan Center in South Bend, an organization formed by faculty, students and others that offers opportunities for people with disabilities. “It was a moving aspect of the leprechaun role, sharing with these great kids who bring with them a joyousness,” he said. “Some would call them disabled, but that’s a very limited view of what their lives really are.” For Cosgrove, they are “well-abled” at the most important things—generosity, love, compassion and being non-judgemental. “They taught me a great deal,” he added.

This past January, Cosgrove’s career underwent a shift. He was appointed by the Pennsylvania governor to complete the term of a civil court judge who had been removed from the bench in a corruption scandal. “As a judge, my role in the justice system has vastly changed,” he said. “My personal opinions are set aside, but the most important thing I can do is to assure everyone, no matter their state in life, that they will be treated fairly, respectfully, and have a chance to be heard. That is the essence of justice.”

Will he return to his practice as an attorney when the two years as a judge in Luzern County are over? “I have been fortunate to have always been guided and placed where I needed to be. In two years, I trust that will still be true,” he said. But whatever the future may hold—he is still only in his early 50s—advocacy for the poor and outcast, in one form or another, will surely be a part of what lies ahead, both in terms of his profession and his faith.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
john fitzmorris
13 years 9 months ago
What more could an Irish-American wish for!Working for two of the giants of American Catholicism and being one of the "Wee Folk" at a ND game. Seriously, Cosgrove's story should be an inspiration to all Irish-Catholics, Irish-Catholic lawyers in particular. It is time that we recall where we came from remembering when we were voicelss and outcast.
Winifred Holloway
13 years 9 months ago
If Mr. Cosgrove is the same JR Cosgrove who submits comments to the Blog, I have to say I disagree with him "on many things."  However, I admire all that he has associated himself with as delineated in this article.  One more point, Fr. Anderson:  Patirck Murphy is not the Democrat representative, but the Democratic representative....sorry, I was an English major.

The latest from america

Elizabeth Cullinan's literary output was not prodigious—but her memorable characters and close attention to the Irish-American culture in which she lived made her a prominent fiction writer in the '70s and '80s.
James T. KeaneApril 16, 2024
Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals continued their discussions about the role of women in the church, listening to women experts, including a professor who spoke about how culture impacts women’s roles and status.
For Bonaventure, to eat spiritually is to approach eating the Eucharist both with faith and ultimately with the affection of charity in one’s heart.
Being a member of the “I don’t know club” means you will be attacked by both sides. It does not mean you have nothing to say.
Thomas J. ReeseApril 16, 2024