Metro

Daniel J. Meltzer, 63; former Obama principal deputy counsel

“He loved students and he loved being a teacher,” said Ellen Semonoff about her husband, Daniel J. Meltzer.
George Simian
“He loved students and he loved being a teacher,” said Ellen Semonoff about her husband, Daniel J. Meltzer.

Each year when Harvard Law School students decided which professor’s section to seek for a course that goes by the shorthand name “federal courts,” many chose Daniel J. Meltzer because of his reputation for running a demanding class.

“They wanted him. They wanted the rigor,” said Richard Fallon, a Harvard Law professor and longtime friend. “They knew that if they could somehow pass muster under the Meltzer standard they were going to be better lawyers than they would be otherwise.”

No stranger to rigor himself, Mr. Meltzer took time away from teaching at the beginning of the Obama administration to serve as principal deputy counsel to the president. The job, he joked, was “about 180 degrees different from being a law professor,” partly because of the extraordinary range of opinions he was called upon to offer on everything from the Affordable Care Act to attempts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, all while preparing Sonia Sotomayor for her US Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the US Senate.

Advertisement

“There was an exhilarating quality to the pace and the number of interesting issues that passed through, and the adrenaline was clearly flowing,” he told the Harvard Law Bulletin afterward, adding that the workload “felt like an avalanche when I arrived, and the avalanche did not feel much smaller when I left. It’s just a huge, huge volume of business.”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Mr. Meltzer, whose caring nature drew as much praise from colleagues as his legal brilliance, died of cancer last Sunday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 63 and lived in Cambridge.

“Dan Meltzer’s formidable intellect and impeccable judgment were rivaled only by his warmth, kindness, and generosity of spirit,” US Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan, who formerly was dean of Harvard Law School, said in a statement that Harvard released. “He brought all those qualities to Harvard Law School, which is an immeasurably better place because he was there.”

When Martha Minow, the school’s current dean, announced to the community that Mr. Meltzer had died, she wrote about “what a privilege it was to know Dan and to work alongside him. Faculty and staff, deans and students, presidents and other public leaders sought out Dan for his exceptional counsel and wisdom. He made the world better in countless ways.”

Those in Washington, meanwhile, were sorry to lose him when he returned in 2010 to Harvard, where he was the Story professor of law. “The thing about Dan that is different than many academics is that he was able to adjust to the pace of the White House and to apply that same critical thinking to issues as they were passing by at 500 miles an hour, which is remarkable,” Thomas Perrelli, then an associate US attorney general, told The New York Times that year.

Advertisement

In the Harvard Law Bulletin interview, Mr. Meltzer said he “never got to the point where it didn’t feel a little bit special to be walking into the West Wing every morning,” but his wife, Ellen Semonoff, said the pull of academia had been strong ever since his childhood as the son of a University of Chicago law professor. “He loved students and he loved being a teacher,” his wife said. “He was really committed to his students.”

The middle child among three siblings, Mr. Meltzer was born and grew up in Chicago, where his mother, Jean Sulzberger Meltzer, volunteered counseling disadvantaged youths. Along with teaching at the University of Chicago Law School, his father, Bernard Meltzer, had been a prosecutor in the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II.

Mr. Meltzer’s uncle Edward H. Levi formerly was president of the University of Chicago and had been US attorney general during the Ford administration.

When Mr. Meltzer was an adult, everyone in his own household shared the legal profession, but “while I think he loved the fact that both of our kids became lawyers, I don’t think he believed that was important,” his wife said. Instead, he thought “they should pick the career that mattered to them,” she added, which was borne out when neither son headed to law school immediately after college.

Mr. Meltzer went to University of Chicago High School and graduated from Harvard in 1972. He met Semonoff when both were Harvard Law School students. “He was fun and funny and he was a serious student, but he didn’t take himself too seriously,” she recalled. Although he was first in his class as a first-year student, “if you met him, you would not know based on the way he behaved that he had done extraordinarily well.”

Advertisement

They graduated from law school in 1975 and married in 1981. In between, he served two clerkships, the latter for US Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart. Mr. Meltzer subsequently was a special assistant to Joseph A. Califano Jr., the US Health, Education and Welfare secretary, and was an associate at the prominent Washington firm Williams & Connolly before returning in 1982 to teach at Harvard Law School. In his early years as a professor, he also was an associate counsel to Lawrence E. Walsh during the Iran-contra prosecution.

The influential American Law Institute, made up of top lawyers, judges, and professors across the country, announced in 2013, that Mr. Meltzer would become the sixth director in its 90-year history. Illness prevented him from taking the post, however.

For all his high-level work, Mr. Meltzer “was not someone who chose to draw attention to himself. I think he was always pretty happy being behind the scenes, giving advice and trying to solve a problem. He was never one to seek attention,” said his wife, who is assistant city manager for human services in Cambridge.

“He was not someone who would dominate a room,” said their son Jonathan of Washington, D.C. Rather, Mr. Meltzer “was someone who liked to let other people speak first,” Jonathan added, and “he had a vibrant sense of humor that was constantly present.”

Mr. Meltzer’s older son, Joshua of San Francisco, said, “He was more interested in talking with us about our lives than telling us what he was doing at work. He was a great dad. It was unmistakable how much he loved spending time with us and my mom.”

In 1997, for the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class, Mr. Meltzer wrote about the 16 “wonderful years” he had been married and said that “in retrospect, it seems to me to be a peculiar phenomenon that I could be proceeding along, feeling content and fulfilled, and then suddenly someone’s entry into my life left me incapable of feeling complete without her.”

A service will be announced for Mr. Meltzer, who in addition to his wife and two sons leaves two sisters, Joan FitzGibbon of Indianapolis and Susan Yost of Columbus, Ohio, and a granddaughter.

In her statement about Mr. Meltzer, Kagan wrote that “no one has ever listened more thoughtfully or given wiser advice. I learned from him every day, and I count myself blessed to have been his friend.”

Fallon, who collaborated with Mr. Meltzer on papers, also was among those who sought his counsel on all significant matters.

“He was warm, he was funny. He was always there when you needed him. Of all the people I have ever known, nobody has ever had better practical judgment about how to handle difficult situations, from the trivial to the extremely serious, from the professional to the personal,” Fallon said. “He had such good judgment you didn’t want to do anything important without asking Dan, ‘What should I do?’ ”

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