Robert Katzmann, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit who was a prolific legal scholar and advocate for civics education on the courts, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 68.
Katzmann was appointed to the Manhattan-based district circuit by Bill Clinton in 1999, while a professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University. He later served as chief judge from 2013 to 2020.
In January, Katzmann announced he was taking senior status, a form of semi-retirement allowing for a lighter caseload, soon after President Joe Biden took office and was joining the faculty of New York University School of Law.
“Throughout it all, Judge Katzmann provided sure and steady leadership,” Chief Judge Debra Livingston, who succeeded him in September of 2020, said in a statement. “And more than this, Katzmann, with his commitment to civic education, also had a vision for the Circuit—that the judiciary might lend a steadying hand to democracy by helping to educate the citizenry about the rule of law and the role of judges.”
Katzmann was a leading legal national scholar on judicial-legislative relations, and the author of several books on the subject, at the time of his 1999 appointment. He also co-founded the Governance Institute, an independent Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, to explore issues related to the separation of powers between the judiciary and Congress.
Katzmann continued teaching and writing for an academic audience while on the bench. His most recent book published in 2014, Judging Statutes, argues that “a fair examination of legislative history” can aid judges confronted with legal ambiguity when interpreting congressional laws that come before the courts.
Katzmann also worked to demystify the courts by advocating for civics education. He founded Justice for All: Courts and the Community, a civics education program that brings students and teachers into the Second Circuit’s courts for moot courts, case proceedings, legal research, and the Learning Center.
Katzmann also sought to increase legal representation for immigrants fighting deportation. He formed the Study Group on Immigrant Representation—made up of lawyers and advocates—in 2008 after noticing that many immigrants who came before him in court didn’t have an attorney.
“He saw the real inadequacies in representation immigrants often face in the justice system, and he worked to change that,” said Brianne Gorod, chief counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who also clerked for Katzmann between 2006-2007. “He has been a constant inspiration to make the world a more just place.”
Several of Katzmann’s clerks describe him as kind, soft-spoken, and humble—an attribute that struck some clerks as uncommon for the aspiring lawyers. “Here was this person who’d reached the pinnacle of his profession, but he did so from a base of modesty and generosity,” said Ryan Park, the solicitor general of North Carolina who clerked for Katzmann between 2011-2012.
Noah Bokat-Lindell, an associate at Jenner & Block, who clerked for the judge between 2018-2019, said Katzmann often made people feel like they were the most important person in the room. “He was a great listener. I think that was one of his superpowers,” he said.
The New York City native, a devoted fan of musical theater, included a reference to a Stephen Sondheim musical in his concurrence in a case involving antitrust standing. “He was very much a New Yorker—he loved everything New York had to offer,” Bokat-Lindell said.
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