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Philip Heymann, former Harvard Law professor and US deputy attorney general, dies at 89

He saw public servants as ‘stewards’ of the nation’s ‘values and long-held traditions’

Philip Heymann testifying before Congress in 1995.Ray Lustig/The Washington Post

A career that included stints serving as a prosecutor in the Watergate and Abscam bribery investigations gave Philip B. Heymann a stately moral stature when he chastised government attempts to justify torturing prisoners rounded up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Torture is a prescription for losing a war for support of our beliefs in the hope of reducing the casualties from relatively small battles,” he wrote in a 2002 opinion piece published in the Globe.

“I do not accept torture either ‘off the books’ with a wink at the secret discretion of the torturers or on the open authority of the judges from whom they might seek authorization,” he added. “I predict so many types of harms to so many people and to the nation from any system that authorizes torture, either secretly or openly, that I would prohibit it.”


A longtime Harvard Law School professor who encouraged and mentored scores of students who pursued public service careers, Mr. Heymann died Tuesday in hospice care at his Los Angeles home, a few days after a major stroke. He was 89 and previously lived in Belmont for many years.

“Phil obviously was such a leader in public service,” said Martha Minow, a former dean of Harvard Law School. “And mentoring students who also were interested in careers in public service was a huge role that he played.”

Mr. Heymann was the James Barr Ames professor of law at the law school, where he taught for decades while taking time away to serve in Washington, D.C., including in the Justice Department as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration.

“I’ve been a teacher for over 50 years, and a father for longer than that. I’ve tried to teach my students and children what it means to be a person of character,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir. “It means doing what you know is right, not out of fear of judgment for standing by or desire for reward upon success, but simply and solely because it is right.”


After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1960, he worked for the US State and Justice departments for several years before beginning his teaching career at the law school in 1969.

While in Washington, he criticized J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, for that agency’s surveillance of US citizens abroad for their political leanings, helping to curtail the practice.

When Archibald Cox was appointed special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate affair, Mr. Heymann was one of the first assistants he hired.

Mr. Heymann helped investigate the so-called White House “plumbers,” who went after those leaking information to reporters. He also was part of the prosecution team that secured a conviction for John Ehrlichman, a top aide to former president Richard M. Nixon.

As head of the Justice Department’s criminal division several years later, Mr. Heymann oversaw prosecutions in the Abscam corruption investigation that brought about the convictions of a US senator and six US representatives.

And in 1990, when Mr. Heymann was back teaching at Harvard Law School, the National Football League commissioner appointed him to investigate allegations by Boston Herald sportswriter Lisa Olson that New England Patriots players had sexually harassed her.

A 60-page report produced by Mr. Heymann’s investigation team led the NFL to fine the Patriots organization and three players.


Mr. Heymann didn’t shy from disagreeing with those he worked for, as was the case in 1994 when he resigned as deputy attorney general less than a year after he was confirmed to serve as the Justice Department’s second-highest official.

While pleased with his accomplishments, which included preparing new antidiscrimination hiring guidelines that prohibit bias on the basis of sexual orientation, he clashed with the administration and Janet Reno, who was attorney general, on key issues such as an impending crime bill that included the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” provision of life sentences for repeat violent offenders.

Mr. Heymann predicted the measure would do little to deter crime, while resulting in much higher prison costs and increased racial disparities.

Publicly, he and Reno chalked up his departure to a lack of “chemistry” in their working relationship.

In a Globe interview, Mr. Heymann took the abrupt end in stride. Would he have done anything differently during his brief tenure? “I’d have rented,” he quipped.

Mr. Heymann “had a fantastic sense of humor,” Minow said, “and built relationships that were full and not just in one dimension with people. We will miss him and remember him for a long, long time.”

So, too, will those he worked with on projects and panels, such as Robert Fein, a national security and forensic psychologist who knew him for many years.

“The legacy he leaves is all of these people in government, in practice now, who learned from him, who shared his values, who believed in public service, who wanted to see the law used properly in defense of the country in support of national security — the careers they had that they wouldn’t have had,” Fein said. “That’s what pleased him the most, seeing the people he mentored go on and aid the country.”


The younger of two siblings, Mr. Heymann was born in Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, 1932, the son of Sidney Heymann, who ran an insurance business, and Bessie Kann Heymann, who was involved in community service and raised the children.

Mr. Heymann attended Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh and graduated from Yale University in 1954. He studied philosophy at Yale and, as a Fulbright scholar, at the Sorbonne in Paris before heading to Harvard Law School.

In 1954, he married Ann Ross, who went on to work in a series of public service jobs in Massachusetts and Washington. They met at a dance when she was 13 and he was 16.

“As he tells the story, he introduced himself and when she asked ‘who are you’ he said he was the person who was going to marry her,” said their daughter, Dr. S. Jody Heymann of Los Angeles.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Heymann leaves a son, Stephen, who formerly was an assistant US attorney in Boston; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial gathering in Boston will be announced.

Mr. Heymann wrote many articles and authored or edited several books and about topics including terrorism.


At Harvard Law School, he pioneered using case studies, said Minow, who called him “a man of just utter integrity, which informed all of his decisions on the faculty, as it did his decisions in government.”

“This was an incredibly dear and wonderful man,” Fein said.

Mr. Heymann’s daughter recalled that he “taught by asking questions, in the classroom and as a parent: ‘What makes you think that is worth doing? How will you make a difference?’ Listening, trying to understand, and helping you get to part of an answer before offering advice.”

And for Mr. Heymann’s students, advice usually included encouragement to pursue public service.

“Our democracy and self-government rely on the strength of our institutions, and the career service is the backbone of those institutions,” he wrote in his memoir.

“Unlike politicians, who cycle through their positions with relative speed, career officials are the long-term custodians of government,” he said. “They maintain and grow the skills necessary to carry out the missions of their organizations. They are the stewards of the values and long-held traditions of our nation.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.