Henry Putzel Jr., 99, of N.H.; summarized high court’s decisions

Mr. Putzel guarded against ‘‘mod words’’ that defied their dictionary definition.
Washington Post/File
Mr. Putzel guarded against ‘‘mod words’’ that defied their dictionary definition.

WASHINGTON — Henry Putzel Jr., a civil rights lawyer during the era of Supreme Court-ordered desegregation who later worked for the high court editing and polishing its rulings and opinions, died Sept. 2 at his home in Peterborough, N.H. He was 99.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Henry ‘‘Pete’’ Putzel III.

As ‘‘reporter of decisions’’ at the Supreme Court from 1964 to 1979, Mr. Putzel encapsulated opinions and prepared a syllabus of the decisions, often in intricate consultation with the nine justices. He was the 13th person to hold the position since the court’s establishment in 1789.


Reporters of decisions are expert grammarians. Although they do not delve into the substance of rulings, they must have an unfailing instinct about when legal citations or quotations may be amiss in a justice’s opinion.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘The work of the reporter of decisions is not known to the public but is of great importance to the courts, the legal profession, and to the public,’’ Chief Justice Warren Burger said at the time of Mr. Putzel’s retirement. ‘‘Mr. Putzel has performed the exacting duties of that important office with great distinction and in keeping with the tradition of the 12 men who preceded him in that position.’’

Mr. Putzel described himself as a guardian against ‘‘mod words’’ that defied their dictionary definition. Members of the court were as susceptible as anyone else to fashionable words that nonetheless contributed to ‘‘cheapening the currency of language,’’ he once told the legal scholar Paul Baier.

Mr. Putzel and Justice Harry Blackmun exchanged confidences on their mutual disdain for ‘‘parameter’’ in the nongeometric sense. Blackmun, he later recounted, ‘‘jokingly told me one day that he had read the riot act to his colleagues and said he would not vote with them in any case where they used the word parameter.’’

Although Mr. Putzel said he often disagreed with the opinions of Justice Robert Jackson, he admired his concise, stylish approach to language. He was fond of citing Jackson’s statement that the high court is ‘‘not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.’’


There have been only 16 reporters of decisions in the past 224 years, and Mr. Putzel was exacting about upholding certain traditions of the job. In addition to a legal pedigree, the reporter needs to be a ‘‘word nut,’’ he said. But at his essence, the perfect candidate should be even more than that, Mr. Putzel conceded. ‘‘I think he should be a double revolving peripatetic nit-picker.’’

During his 15-year court tenure, Mr. Putzel edited or co-edited 64 volumes of the United States Reports, bound volumes of the court’s opinions.

One change that occurred under his watch was the release of headnotes — the colloquial three- or four-page summary of an opinion and key legal holdings — at the moment a ruling was handed down.

The headnotes, which cannot be cited as legal precedent, had formerly been released months after an opinion became public. Mr. Putzel said the court ordered the change mostly to help the deadline-oriented news media.

His wife, the former Eleanor Eiseman, whom he married in 1939, died in 1998. He leaves three children, Henry Putzel III of Brooklyn and Sharon, Conn., Roger Putzel of Jericho, Vt., and Judith Putzel of Nelson, N.H.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.


In his oral history with Baier, Mr. Putzel provided humanizing insights into the justices. He recalled the October many years ago when there was a stir in the court as a messenger began passing Chief Justice Warren notes from behind the velvet curtains.

‘‘He would smile or frown or show no emotion and then another note would come and people began to wonder what these notes could be about,’’ Mr. Putzel said. ‘‘Well, it wasn’t until some years later that I found out that the World Series was going on. He was a great baseball fan, great sports fan of all kinds, and at the end of each inning the messenger was delivering to the bench the box score at the end of the inning.’’