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Opinion | Robert Katzmann, a Humane Judge Gone Too Soon

The result was Justice for All, a multimedia civic-education center based at the Second Circuit’s courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Since 2018, groups of high school students, many of them racial minorities, have been visiting the center to learn how to do basic legal research online, take part in moot courts and meet with judges, all with an eye toward combating the widespread public ignorance about American government and its legal system. “How can we expect the public to support the judiciary and the Constitution and the rule of law when they know so little about it?” Judge Katzmann once asked me.

He was interested not only in educating students about legal power but in setting them up to one day share it. “When I’ve done moot courts, I take the students back to the robing room and I say, ‘Put on the robe,’” he told me after meeting with one group of students. “And these are often kids of color. I say, ‘This could be your future.’ And you really can see in their faces, oh yes, this could be their future.”

Judge Katzmann’s gentle humility was disarming and widely remarked on, perhaps because of its relative rarity in the hard-charging, self-assured culture of the legal world, not to mention most of American political life these days.

In one conversation in his chambers, he told me how proud he was of the judicial commitment to nonpartisanship. “That’s one of the great things about the judiciary. We come from all different kinds of backgrounds, but we’re playing off the same score. Musicians are part of an orchestra; there’s a common language. Were judges to become involved in partisan disputes, we would devalue the institution we serve, and we are very careful to avoid that kind of language and rhetoric.”

As someone who writes about the courts on a regular basis, I found myself skeptical of Judge Katzmann’s faith in an independent judiciary. But he meant it. In our last phone call, he pointed with pride to his 2018 decision for the full Second Circuit in the case of Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc. — in which the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court upheld that decision in a landmark ruling last June. That gratified Judge Katzmann, but perhaps no more so than the manner in which he had won over his colleagues with his own opinion two years earlier. “The vote in that case was 10-3. And in the 10 votes, you have the support of judges who were appointed by Republican presidents. If you look at the dissent, the three, the dissent was written by someone appointed by a Democratic president,” he told me.

Then he admitted to some trepidation. “A concern that I do have is that there may be a perception out there that courts are just political actors and that what they do is just serve their political sponsors. And I don’t think that that is healthy,” he said. “Because I also don’t think it’s correct.”

If Robert Katzmann’s vision of the judiciary is to be a reality, it will require more judges like him.

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