In Memoriam: Judge Robert A. Katzmann (1953-2021)

He was a great judge, a brilliant legal mind, and a true mensch, unfailingly kind and thoughtful.

Judge Robert A. Katzmann, who served on the Second Circuit since 1999 and as its chief judge from 2013 to 2020, passed away yesterday after a long illness. He was 68 years old. His death was announced by Chief Judge Debra A. Livingston, who succeeded Judge Katzmann as chief in September 2020:

Judge Katzmann led our Court through historic challenges, from budget sequester and governmental shutdowns, at the beginning of his tenure as Chief, to the pandemic which upended our Court’s operations only last spring. Throughout it all, Judge Katzmann provided sure and steady leadership. And more than this, Judge Katzmann, with his commitment to civic education, also had a vision for the Circuit — that the judiciary might lend a steadying hand to our democracy by helping to educate the citizenry about the rule of law and the role of judges. His quiet confidence, determination, exceptional leadership, and strong sense of justice inspired us all. We will miss him profoundly.

Judge Katzmann was a great judge and a brilliant legal mind. He graduated from Columbia College, summa cum laude; Harvard University, from which he earned A.M. and Ph.D. degrees; and Yale Law School, where he served on the Yale Law Journal. After graduating from law school, he clerked for Judge Hugh H. Bownes of the First Circuit, served as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and taught at Georgetown University.

At the time of his nomination to the Second Circuit by President Bill Clinton, Katzmann was the Walsh Professor of Government, Professor of Law, and Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown, as well as a leading expert on judicial-legislative relations and the separation of powers. He was nominated on March 9, 1999, and confirmed by voice vote on July 14, 1999. When he received his commission on July 16 of that year, he became the first judge of the federal courts to take the bench with not only a law degree, but also a Ph.D. in government.

During his 22-year tenure on the bench, Judge Katzmann was one of the most highly esteemed members of the federal judiciary, deeply respected on both sides of the aisle for his intellect, integrity, and fair-mindedness. As noted by @SCOTUSblog, “His influence on SCOTUS and American law was enormous.” In two of the most noteworthy cases of last Term, Bostock v. Clayton County (holding that Title VII protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination) and Trump v. Vance (holding that the president is subject to state criminal subpoenas), the Supreme Court affirmed rulings by Judge Katzmann.

Judge Katzmann was held in high regard by members of the Supreme Court, which explains his long track record as a “feeder judge,” a judge known for sending his clerks into SCOTUS clerkships. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose nomination to the Court he helped shepherd through the Senate, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, his former colleague on the Second Circuit, were both close friends — and they hired frequently out of his chambers, trusting in his eye for talent and the training that he provided to his clerks.

I suspect, however, that Judge Katzmann would like to be remembered less for his accomplishments and awards and more for his many contributions — not just to the federal judiciary, but to civic education, access to justice, and legal academia. The Second Circuit’s announcement of his passing lists some of them:

  • “During his tenure as Chief Judge, Judge Katzmann spearheaded the Second Circuit’s initiative, Justice for All: Courts and the Community, a civics education program involving all the Second Circuit’s courts and aimed at, in Judge Katzmann’s words, ‘increas[ing] public understanding of the role and operations of the courts.’ Under Judge Katzmann’s leadership, students and their teachers trekked to courtrooms across the Circuit to learn more about the rule of law…. Judge Katzmann identified this civics initiative as his most beloved and important project, vital to promoting basic literacy about our institutions.”

  • “During his early years on the bench, Judge Katzmann witnessed firsthand the inadequate legal representation of non-citizens in immigration proceedings and the adverse impact of inadequate representation on the fair and effective administration of justice. In 2007, he delivered the Marden Lecture at the New York City Bar Association, The Legal Profession and the Unmet Needs of the Immigrant Poor, drawing attention to the profound lack of quality legal representation for the immigrant poor.”

  • He then organized an interdisciplinary Study Group on Immigrant Representation in 2008 to address the challenges of inadequate counsel. This in turn led to the 2013 launch of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which provided representation to non-citizens in New York facing deportation, and the 2014 creation of the non-profit Immigrant Justice Corps, a fellowship program for recent law school and college graduates committed to providing quality representation to indigent immigrants.

  • Since 2001, he taught as an adjunct professor at NYU Law School, where students raved about him as a teacher and mentor. When he took senior status from the Second Circuit earlier this year, he did so in part so he could do even more teaching and scholarly writing, joining the NYU law faculty as a professor of practice.

As noted in the Second Circuit announcement, Judge Katzmann is survived by his wife, Jennifer Callahan, an acclaimed filmmaker; his mother Sylvia Katzmann, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Russian immigrants; his twin brother Gary Katzmann, also a federal judge (on the Court of International Trade); two other siblings, Martin and Susan; in-laws Stacey and Neil; and many nephews and nieces.

He is the third judge of the Second Circuit to pass away in the past six months. Judge Ralph K. Winter Jr. passed away in December, and Judge Peter W. Hall passed away in March. May they all rest in peace.

I had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Judge Katzmann, and if I could sum him up in just one word, I would say that he was a mensch — a person of uncommon integrity, honor, and decency, a truly wonderful human being.

We met in 2015, when I attended an event for his widely acclaimed book on statutory interpretation, Judging Statutes, and wrote about it for Above the Law. He sent me a kind note of thanks afterwards, and we kept in touch since then. He also knew my husband Zach, who clerked for a different Second Circuit judge.

When my husband and I had our son in 2017, Judge Katzmann and his wife Jennifer sent us a delightful CD of music for children, which we played incessantly during our son’s first few months. It was such a kind and thoughtful thing to do — but that’s who he was, a kind and thoughtful man.

When I was hospitalized in March 2020 with Covid-19, Judge Katzmann sent me and Zach a message of support and good wishes. He also thoughtfully added, imagining (correctly) that we were overwhelmed with both the situation and correspondence, “I know this is a very stressful time. No need to respond.” We eventually did respond, although it took us a while — not until I got out of the hospital last April — and he expressed great joy upon hearing from us.

My last correspondence with Judge Katzmann was in April of this year, when I wrote to let him know about Original Jurisdiction and mentioned my naming him a Judge of the Week back in January, when he took senior status. He wrote:

I am glad to learn about Original Jurisdiction and for the invitation to keep in touch. As a former academic, I am enjoying teaching at NYU, with more time to do writing and other projects. You are right that I am “retired” in the technical sense of moving from active to senior status, but I maintain a full caseload and intend to maintain a substantial caseload for years to come. So I am as retired as your old boss, Judge O’Scannlain, who continues to be a judge making substantial contributions. I appreciated being Judge of the Week; I chuckled a bit as the reason for the recognition brought to mind Shakespeare: “nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”

Judge Katzmann left us far too soon — but he left life as he lived it, with dignity, decency, and grace. May his memory be a blessing.

UPDATE (6/11/2021, 11:25 a.m.): Here is Judge Katzmann’s New York Times obituary. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, as his wife Jennifer Callahan told the Times. Rest in peace, Judge Katzmann.