Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Yale Law School Mourns the Death of Judge Robert A. Katzmann ’80

Judge Robert A. Katzmann ’80

Judge Robert A. Katzmann ’80 spoke at Yale Law School in 2019 during the unveiling of his portrait.

Judge Robert A. Katzmann ’80, former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, died on June 9, 2021 at the age of 68. His death was announced by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Debra A. Livingston.

Dean Heather K. Gerken noted upon his passing, “Judge Katzmann was a giant. He was a brilliant jurist and, more importantly, a kind and decent man. The Judge devoted his life to the service of others. Despite his remarkable achievements, he remained the humble, wry, and warm person that inspired love and admiration across generations of clerks, judges, and scholars. He embodied the best of Yale Law School, and he will be sorely missed.”

Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law Guido Calabresi ’58, who served with Judge Katzmann on the 2nd Circuit, said, “Judge Katzmann was a great, great judge. But more important he was a truly fine human being. He was always gentle and kind. Yet he fought constantly and effectively for the underdog. In everything he did he represented all that this school seeks its graduates to be. More personally, he was my student but, in time, became my colleague, teacher and leader....and always a dear and loving friend.”

Judge Katzmann was born April 22, 1953 in New York City. He received his B.A. from Columbia in 1973, and an M.A. from Harvard in 1976. After completing his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard in 1978, he arrived at Yale Law School. He was an Article and Book Review Editor of the Yale Law Journal before graduating in 1980. Following law school, Judge Katzmann clerked for Judge Hugh H. Bownes on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, then joined the Brookings Institution in 1981. At Brookings, he was a research associate, senior fellow, visiting fellow, and acting program director. 

In 1999, Judge Katzmann was nominated to a seat on the 2nd Circuit by President Bill Clinton ’73 and entered judicial service on July 16 of that year. He became Chief Judge on September 1, 2013, a position he held until August 31, 2020. He joined the NYU School of Law faculty in January 2021 after he assumed senior status as a federal judge.

Katzmann clerks
Judge Robert A. Katzmann ’80 and law clerks past and present in 2019.

While on the bench, Judge Katzmann spearheaded programs to help the public better understand the law and to improve representation for immigrants. As Chief Judge, he launched the “Justice for All: Courts and the Community” civic education initiative of the federal courts of the 2nd Circuit in 2014. The program brings students and teachers from New York City schools into the courthouse, where they meet judges, observe court proceedings, and participate in moot courts. After mock trials, Judge Katzmann would let students try on judges’ robes, so that they could see themselves as future leaders in the law.

A working group convened by Judge Katzmann led to the founding of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the first government-funded program of legal counsel for detained noncitizens. In 2014, Judge Katzmann helped found the nonprofit Immigrant Justice Corps, the country’s first fellowship program for recent law school and college graduates, dedicated to meeting the need for high-quality legal assistance for immigrants.

His interest in this aspect of law was personal. As the son of father who fled Nazi Germany and a mother from an immigrant family, Judge Katzmann was keenly aware of the role the courts play in the lives of immigrants and the transformative effects of citizenship and legal status. In 2016, he presided over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis Island’s history. There he welcomed nearly 300 new Americans, including an Immigrant Justice Corps client, through the same port of entry that once welcomed his own grandmother. 

“I do a lot of work on immigrants . . . and I think part of the inspiration is that I can still remember the voices and accents of my youth and those who came to this country trying to make it a better place,” he said in a 2014 C-SPAN interview.

He received the Vilcek Prize for Excellence in 2020 for his dedication to immigrant causes. Judge Katzmann declined the monetary award and requested the prize money be donated to the Immigrant Justice Corps.

In 2019, more than 100 past, present, and future clerks attended a portrait unveiling at Yale Law School to celebrate 20 years of Judge Katzmann’s service to the judiciary. The event was one of many times that Judge Katzmann returned to the Law School over the years. He gave talks on Judging Statutes, his 2014 book, and on access to justice for immigrants. He also returned to encourage students to apply for fellowships with the Immigrant Justice Corps. Dozens of Yale Law School graduates have served with the organization.

Judge Katzmann is survived by his wife, Jennifer Callahan; identical twin brother Judge Gary S. Katzmann ’79; brother Martin Katzmann (Stacey White); and sister Susan Horner (Neil), along with many nieces and nephews.