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A Model of Civics and Civility, and a Mensch's Mensch

You may have seen and read in the news media about the passing of Judge Robert Katzmann, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The tributes -- from judges, lawyers, academics, court officials, and journalists -- will be many. They will praise him as a judge, a legal scholar, a leader, and an educator with a passion for public education on civics. All of those tributes are true, and as many as there are can never capture Judge Katzmann's enormous intellect and breadth.

But I was privileged to know Bob as a friend. And I want to talk about that for a bit, because that's what I'm going to miss about him most.

I met Bob when we were young lawyers relatively early in our careers -- I at the Federal Judicial Center, Bob at The Brookings Institution and Georgetown University. Leo Levin, the former director of the FJC, introduced us at a brunch at his townhouse in Dupont Circle in DC and we became fast friends. I remember that my wife and I were gawking with Bob at the dignitaries at Leo's salon that day -- judges (including a soon-to-be Supreme Court justice), law professors, prominent DC attorneys -- and Bob, Joan, and I were the anonymous young people there, the "B" listers. Bob did not remain on the "B" list for long.

Bob and I would enjoy many lunches and events over the years at which I delighted both in his courtly manner and his devilishly wicked yet gentle wit, which he often directed at himself. He was a craftsman with language, ideas, and humor whose career and stature grew as did the body of his scholarly work. Yet, he remained modest, kind, and unfailingly self-effacing.

Among Bob's many remarkable qualities was the ability to make the person he was with feel like the smartest and most accomplished person in the room, especially when in reality that appellation usually belonged to Bob. Bob was the consummate flatterer, but not in a fawning way. He genuinely believed the praise he heaped upon his friends.

I remember when Bob introduced me to his mentor, Sen. Daniel Moynihan. Bob introduced me with a bundle of compliments that, as they went on, started to embarrass me. Sensing my discomfort, Sen. Moynihan smiled, touched me on the arm, and said, "Not to worry. None of us can ever live up to what Bob says about us."

When a few years later Sen. Moynihan recommended Bob to the Second Circuit and Pres. Clinton nominated him, I was delighted for Bob and sad for myself. I knew I would miss my occasional luncheon companion and our telephone calls when he left for New York and took up the weighty responsibilities of the court of appeals.

We stayed in touch and though we didn't get to see each other as often as we would like, made sure to keep each other informed on developments in our lives and professional careers. Bob read drafts of my children's books on civics. His few comments improved my work and his approval gratified me. On occasions when his court governance responsibilities brought him to Washington, he would sometimes visit or call me when he had a few free moments in between meetings. I cherished those visits, even if sometimes all they involved was a quick walk to Union Station with him on his way to catch the train back to New York. Just a few minutes with Bob always uplifted me.

Among Bob's many kindnesses to me was the reassurance he offered when a new director was about to take office at the Center, a judge whom I did not know but he did. "You will thrive working for her, Syl," Bob said in that calm, soothing, encouraging way of his. "She is a fine person."

"A fine person" -- that was Bob's highest compliment, one I had heard him use for his friend, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many times. I knew I would be OK. I was.

Rest in peace, Bob. You are one of the finest persons I have ever known, and about the only person I know who can live up to all the nice things you say about others. I will miss you, but your kindness, decency, and friendship will be with me always, and I am better for them.


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