Yale Law School Mourns the Death of Judge Ralph K. Winter ’60

(from left) U.S. Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor '79, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Clarence Thomas '74 all gave tributes to Judge Ralph K. Winter '60 (center, right) at a special ceremony in September 2017 when Judge Winter received the 2017 Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award.

Judge Ralph Karl Winter Jr. ’60, a former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and former William K. Townsend Professor of Law at Yale Law School, died on December 8, 2020 at the age of 85.

“Judge Winter was an extraordinarily distinguished scholar who taught a generation of Yale students before and after joining the bench,” said Dean Heather K. Gerken. “Throughout his service to the Second Circuit, he remained an important participant in the life of the school. He leaves behind an intellectual legacy that few can match, and he will be sorely missed by his students and former colleagues.”

His death was announced by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Debra A. Livingston.

Judge Ralph Winter
Winter was born on July 30, 1935, in Waterbury, Connecticut. He received his A.B. degree from Yale College in 1957, and remained in New Haven to attend Yale Law School, where he received his LL.B. degree in 1960.

After law school, he served as a law clerk to Chief Judge Caleb M. Wright ’33, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, and then as the first law clerk to then-Judge Thurgood Marshall in 1961–1962.

After his clerkships, Winter returned to Yale Law School, where he remained a scholar and teacher of securities regulations as well as constitutional law, antitrust law, labor law and evidence.

His 1977 article, “State Law, Shareholder Protection, and the Theory of the Corporation,” changed the terms of debate about the federal system of corporate law. Judge Frank Easterbrook called the article “the single most important contribution to the economic analysis of corporate law since Ronald Coase published ‘The Nature of the Firm’ in 1937.”

Winter entered judicial service on January 5, 1982, and was administered the oath of office by his mentor, Justice Marshall, in a ceremony at Yale Law School. From 1997 to 2000, Winter served as chief judge of the Second Circuit, taking senior status on October 1, 2000.

“The adjective ‘great’ is often used, too often, when referring to judges,” said Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law Kate Stith, a former deputy dean of Yale Law School. “But here it is absolutely on-target. Ralph’s colleagues and the attorneys who appeared before him used that word even when he wasn’t around to hear them.”

During his judicial tenure, Winter served as an adjunct professor at Yale Law School through 2014 — teaching corporations, securities regulation, antitrust, evidence, and sports law. He also served for many years as a trustee of Brooklyn Law School. In 1996, Winter received the Federal Bar Council’s Learned Hand Medal for Excellence in Federal Jurisprudence.

At Yale Law School, the Judge Ralph Winter Lectureship on corporate law and corporate governance was established in 2002 to commemorate his foundational corporate law scholarship and distinguished career as a jurist. A prize for the best student paper in law and economics was named for him in 2010, and a scholarship fund in 2013.

Winter received the Yale Law School Center for the Study of Corporate Law’s Simeon E. Baldwin Award for distinguished achievement in law and business in 2008. In 2018, he was the recipient of the inaugural Robert H. Bork award from the Yale Law School Federalist Society.

“One of the less well-known facts about Ralph is the great affection for, and admiration of, him by his students and law clerks,” said Roberta Romano ’80, Sterling Professor of Law and Director of the Yale Law School Center for the Study of Corporate Law. “The endowed gifts that have been established in Ralph’s honor at YLS are testimony to the profound influence he had on their lives. They are acts of public recognition of a cherished memory of a teacher and mentor.”

In the realm of labor law, Professor Winter joined forces with Yale Law School Dean Harry Wellington in 1971 to write a seminal Brookings Institution book on public-sector unionism, The Unions and the Cities, and was a pioneer in considering the role of labor law in sports.

In 2017, Winter received the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, the highest honor in the federal judiciary. The award honors an Article III judge who has achieved a distinguished career and made significant contributions to the administration of justice, the advancement of the rule of law, and the improvement of society as a whole. Recipients are chosen by a committee of federal judges consisting of a Supreme Court Justice, appellate court judge, and a district court judge. Five Supreme Court justices — Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor ’79, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Clarence Thomas ’74 — joined more than 200 guests at the September 2017 ceremony at the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York for the occasion.

The formal memorial for the Judge will take place in the Second Circuit courthouse in New York, the construction of which Judge Winter oversaw as Chief and which is named for his mentor, Thurgood Marshall.

“Judge Winter was an extraordinary jurist and human being,” Judge Livingston said in a statement on behalf of the Court. “This is a profound loss for the Court that he served so well and with such distinction over so many years. It is an equally profound loss for the judges with whom he served. Judge Winter was a humane and generous person, as well as an exceptional judge, and we have valued our friendships with him for many years. This is a sad day for the federal judiciary and for the judges of the Court of Appeals.”

Winter’s wife of 50 years, Kate, passed away in 2012. He is survived by his son, Andrew, his daughter-in-law Kimberly, and granddaughter, Kiersten, all of North Haven, Connecticut.