James R. Durfee, a former chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board and a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Claims, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday at his home in Bethesda. He was 79.
Judge Durfee was nominated to head the CAB by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. The board is charged by law with promoting and regulating civil aviation within the United States and between the United States and other countries. Judge Durfee became chairman just as the jet age in air transport was beginning.
Before he had been in office a year, he and three other board members and several top CAB staff members flew in a Boeing 707 jet transport from Seattle to Los Angeles and back to dramatiez their confidence in the new planes.
At a press conference later, he said: "We are standing on the threshhold of a new air age which will absolutely change travel habits of the American public."
By the time he was appointed to the Court of Claims by President Eisenhower in 1960, civilian jet travel was becoming a commonplace. Among other actions Judge Durfee took during his tenure with the CAB was the reorganization of the board's accident investigation operations. He said the changes were necessary because of the increasing size and speed of commercial airplanes.
On the Court of Claims, which has jurisdiction over claims against the federal government, Judge Durfee was known as a man who "always zeroed in on the universal principles of justice, not the technical rules of law unrelated to human values," according to one of his colleagues, Judge Oscar H. Davis.
Wilson Cowen, chief judge of the Court of Claims, described him as "a human judge, not just a book judge."
Cowen said a case tha illustrated these qualities in Judge Durfee was one decided in 1971 concerning property confiscated by the U.S. government during World War II.
The property in question was stock in the General Dyestuff Corp. It was confiscated on the alleged grounds that the stockholders, including Ernest K. Halbach, the president of the firm, was holding it for I. G. Farben, the German chemical conglomerate, and that they were holding it in violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act.
Despite this, Halbach had been retained to run the company by the Custodian of Alien Property, and continued in that capacity until he retired in 1950.
At about this time, Halbach and the 10 other General Dyestuff shockholders involved made out-of-court settlements. In 1951, Halbach filed a suit in which he contended that the settlement, which was for a fraction of the value of the stock, had been obtained under duress. He was unsuccessful in the lower courts and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
In 1964, President Johnson signed into law a bill introduced by Sen. Everett Dirksen that gave the stockholders the right to seek relief in the Court of Claims. There then followed lengthy litigation before Judge Durfee and other judges of the court.
The crux of the case was the loyalty of the stockholders to the United States. The question of whether they had engaged in a conspiracy to aid an enemy of the government, as the Justice Department contended at the time the stock was seized, had never been tested in court.
On Feb. 19, 1971, the Court of Claims issued its opinion. Judge Durfee, writing for the majority of a court that split 5-2 on the decision, awarded $22.2 million to the stockholders or their heirs, some of whom were members of Halbach's family.
The Justice Department had failed to prove that the stockholders had engaged in a conspiracy to aid the Germans, he wrote.
"This court should now correct that long-stanging injustice," he said.
On Jan. 6, 1972, Judge Durfee retired to senior judge status. In that capacity, he sometimes sat as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge as well as a member of the Court of Claims. He remained active until his death.
Judge Durfee was born in Oshkosh, Wis. He graduated from Huron College in South Dakota and from Marquette University law school. He practiced law in Antigo, Wis., until 1951, when he was appointed to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state. He was a member of the commission when President Eisenhower named him to head to CAB.
Judge Durfee was a member of the Avaiation Club, the National Lawyers Club, and the COngressional Country Club. Marquette named him a Distinguished Alumnus in 1972.
Survivors include his wife, Mona, of the home in Bethesda; two sons, James and John, both of Washington; a daughter, Mrs, David B. Clarke, of Concord, Mass.; a sister, Grace Miller, of Rhinelander, Wis.; and five grandchildren.