Annual Survey of American Law honors Chief Judge Robert Katzmann

From a lectern in Greenberg Lounge, Robert A. Katzmann, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, gestured to his parents, who sat in the front row of the crowded hall. His father, now in his 90s, had been a refugee from Nazi Germany; his mother, in her 80s, is a second-generation Russian immigrant.

It’s from his parents, Katzmann told the audience, that he derived his lifelong drive to improve the quality of legal services for immigrants in New York City and across the country.

Each year, the student editors of the Annual Survey of American Law dedicate their volume to a legal luminary who has made significant contributions to the field.  At the 2018 dedication ceremony on March 6, they honored Katzmann, an adjunct professor at NYU Law, for his commitment to education, legal scholarship, and immigrants’ rights. Tributes came from legal scholars, immigration rights advocates, and judicial colleagues, including US Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, who attended the event, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who spoke via pre-recorded video.

Sotomayor, who referred to Katzmann as “my brother” in her remarks for their shared interest in immigration rights, spoke of Katzmann’s dedication to education throughout his career. After clerking for Judge Hugh Bownes on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Katzmann joined the Brookings Institution where he wrote and edited books and articles examining the interplay between courts and Congress. He taught at Georgetown University, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the University of Oregon before taking his seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1999. In 2013, Katzmann became chief judge.

Since he has been on the bench, Katzmann has authored 190 published majority opinions and been affirmed by the Supreme Court five times—“and been reversed only three,” Sotomayor quipped. Katzmann’s notable court decisions include the recent Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc. ruling, which bars employers from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation. 

Many of Katzmann’s colleagues spoke of his work to improve the experience of immigrants in the US court system. Nancy Morawetz ’81, Professor of Clinical Law at NYU, said she was moved in particular by Katzmann’s choice to focus on the difficulties faced by unrepresented immigrants in his 2007 Orison S. Marden Lecture for the New York City Bar Association.

“Those of us that work on immigration cases were deeply grateful that Judge Katzmann had chosen to speak on this topic,” Morawetz said. “And what happened next was really remarkable.”

That next step was the formation of the Katzmann Study Group on Immigrant Representation in 2010. Katzmann brought together 50 volunteers from law firms, nonprofit organizations, immigration groups, bar associations, law schools, and governments to quantify current immigrant legal representation. The two-year research project led by the group found that 60 percent of detained immigrants in New York City do not have counsel by the time their cases are completed, and of this group only 3 percent have successful court outcomes.

The research led to an expansion of the New York Immigration Family Unity Project, a program funded by New York City government that now ensures that low-income non-citizens facing deportation in New York City have free legal representation.

Peter L. Markowitz ’01, Professor of Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, praised another Katzmann initiative, The Immigrant Justice Corps. A fellowship program that Katzmann founded in 2014, the Corps provides recent law graduates with additional training in immigration law and then pairs them with nonprofit organizations to provide legal services to low-income immigrants. 

According to Markowitz, the Corps has achieved a successful outcome in 93 percent of its completed court cases and has assisted more than 28,000 immigrants and their family members.

“It’s hard to overstate the influence that Judge Katzmann has had since he delivered the Marden lecture a decade ago,” Markowitz said. “In those ten years we have seen an absolute explosion in both the quality and quantity of lawyers that are available to poor immigrants, and at the epicenter of that explosion are the two programs that grew out of Judge Katzmann’s work, both the [New York Immigration Family Unity Project] and the Immigrant Justice Corps.”

Other speakers who lauded Katzmann's work included Ann Claire Williams, retired judge for the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit; Peter Markowitz '01, professor of law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; Lindsay Nash, visiting assistant clinical professor, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; and Paul Light, Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Overwhelmingly, the speakers praised not just Katzmann’s dedication to the underrepresented but the humility and kindness they’ve seen him bring to his work.

“Brother,” Sotomayor said in her closing remarks, “You are the shining example of what a meaningful life can accomplish and of how care and compassion can serve the legal profession…I will always try to follow in your footsteps, knowing that you will always lead the way to what is right, what is just, and what is kind.”


Watch the entire dedication here: 

Posted March 28, 2018