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Robert Katzmann, US judge with reach beyond the bench, dies at 68

Judge Robert Katzmann.
Judge Robert Katzmann.DAMON WINTER/NYT

Robert Katzmann, who as chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in New York, helped guarantee legal representation to immigrants, championed civic education and demystified judicial proceedings for the public, died Wednesday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 68.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his wife, Jennifer Callahan, said. He had recently assumed senior status on the federal bench when his seven-year term as chief judge ended.

As the son and grandson of Jewish refugees who fled Germany and Russia, Katzmann was instrumental in the establishment of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the first government-funded program of legal assistance for noncitizens who were being held by the authorities under one federal law or another.

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“There’s kind of a myth in the air that we’ll have reform and the problem will go away,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “Implementation tends to be an afterthought.”

With the support of the anti-poverty group Robin Hood Foundation, the New York project evolved in 2014 into the Immigrant Justice Corps, the nation’s first fellowship program dedicated to providing competent counsel for immigrants.

“Almost single-handedly he convinced the organized bar to provide free quality representation for thousands of needy immigrants,” said Jed Rakoff, a senior U.S. District Court judge. “No judge ever took a broader view of the role of a judge in promoting justice in our society, or was more successful in turning those views into practical accomplishment.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, quoted last year in the Federal Bar Council Quarterly, hailed Katzmann as having “an innate sense of justice, morality and integrity” and called him “a visionary who brings out the best in people.”

In his book “Judging Statutes” (2014), a primer on how the courts should interpret congressional legislation, Katzmann rejected strict textualism, which relies solely and literally on the letter of the law, in favor of what he called purposivism — determining the drafters’ intent by reviewing memos, committee reports and other documents that led to the writing of a law.

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“Ignoring such guidance increases the probability that a judge will construe a law at odds with legislative meaning, and potentially more in line with the judge’s own intuitions and policy preferences,” he wrote in the Harvard Law Review in 2016, in response to a review of his book by then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who now sits on the Supreme Court.

“A judge’s work takes place not on the lofty plane of grand, unified theory, but on the ground of commonsense inquiry,” Katzmann asserted.

In 2018, Katzmann wrote the 2nd Circuit Court’s majority opinion in Zarda v. Altitude Express that the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The next year, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, he held in Trump v. Vance that the president of the United States was not immune from a state grand jury subpoena that directs a third party to produce nonprivileged material in its investigation of potential crimes.

The case concerned a subpoena to Donald Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, from the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr. The appeals court rejected Trump’s request to block the subpoena, which sought eight years of his personal and corporate tax returns.

Both the Zarda and Trump rulings were affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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In 2017, Katzmann, a consensus builder, issued a rare dissent when the 2nd Circuit Court, overruling a District Court judge, said in Watson v. United States that a U.S. citizen who had been wrongfully detained for 1,273 days was not entitled to sue the government for damages because he had not filed his claim in a timely manner.

Even as a boy, Katzmann sought to engage himself in civic affairs. When he was 9, he wrote to President John F. Kennedy on behalf of members of the Seneca tribe who had lost their territory to a flood-control project. As a second grader, in a letter to Mayor Robert Wagner Jr., he complained about a problematic traffic light in his Queens neighborhood.

Widely credited as the first federal judge to hold a doctoral degree in government, he believed that while justice ought to be blind, the process of meting it out should be transparent.

To that end, in 2014, he and U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero launched the Committee on Civic Education, which culminated in Justice For All: Courts and the Community, an educational initiative to make the judicial system more accessible. During the pandemic, audio of courtroom sessions were livestreamed for the first time.

“What I really wanted to do was bring our courts and our communities closer together,” Katzmann told The New York Law Journal last year. “If I had to say what is my signature initiative, if one can ever talk that way, it would be that.”

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Robert Allen Katzmann was born April 22, 1953, in Manhattan eight minutes ahead of his identical twin brother, Gary. Judge Gary Katzmann was appointed to the U.S. Court of International Trade in 2016 after serving as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

In addition to his wife, who is an artist, and twin brother, Katzmann's survivors include two other siblings, Susan Horner and Martin Katzmann. Katzmann lived in Manhattan.

His paternal grandfather died in Nazi Germany in 1938 during the Kristallnacht pogrom. His father, John, an electrical engineer, and his grandmother arrived in the United States in March 1941. His mother, Sylvia (Butner) Katzmann, who was born in Brooklyn, was a homemaker.

His parents instilled in the Katzmann children the “centrality of treating people with dignity and kindness,” Sotomayor said.

After graduating from Forest Hills High School in Queens, Robert earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1973 and a master’s degree and doctorate in government from Harvard, where he was a teaching assistant to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was soon to become a U.S. senator from New York and who would later recommend him for the federal bench. Katzmann received a law degree from Yale Law School in 1980.

After clerking for Judge Hugh Bownes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, based in Boston, Katzmann was a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., from 1981 to 1999 and a law professor at Georgetown University.

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Before he was nominated for the District Court by President Bill Clinton in 1999, Katzmann’s only previous federal job was working in a post office one summer. He had never regularly practiced law. He served as chief judge of the 2nd Circuit court from 2013 through last August.

Chief Justice John Roberts appointed him chairman of the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on the Judicial Branch, and he was a professor at the New York University School of Law.

As a descendant of immigrants, Katzmann presided over the largest naturalization ceremony ever held on Ellis Island and the first naturalization ceremony held on the rebuilt World Trade Center site in Manhattan.

In an interview on C-SPAN in 2014, Katzmann provided some insight into how he decided a case.

“I don’t really think about being reversed by the Supreme Court,” he said. “I think about trying to follow the law where the precedents direct me to go in a certain direction and where the precedents don’t.”

Since federal judgeships are lifetime appointments, he was asked how long he hoped to remain on the bench.

“I’d love to stay on as long as my brain is working,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.