Judge Robert Katzmann was struck the same way we all are by the fundamental lack of fairness in immigration proceedings. It started in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the late 2000s. Judge Katzmann was increasingly shocked at the volume of appeals filed by immigrants who had judgments against them in the immigration courts.
Katzmann was struck by the poor quality legal representation the immigrants had — if they had a lawyer at all. Uncharacteristically for a judge, he took concrete action.
He “didn’t practice in immigration court; he didn’t have a loved one facing detention or deportation,” his former clerk and long-time friend, Lindsay Nash, remembered. “The fact that he, while sitting on the Second Circuit, saw what he saw — a real crisis of justice for immigrants in our legal system — from appellate briefs and then made it his mission to change that dynamic speaks volumes about who he was as a judge and a person.”
Born on April 22, 1953 in New York City, the son and grandson of Eastern European Jewish refugees, he died at 68 years old on June 9, 2021. In addition to his law degree from Yale Law School, Judge Katzmann held a master’s degree and doctorate in government from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University. His experiences and observations during his time on the federal bench led to his efforts to spearhead groundbreaking programs to improve access to counsel for immigrants nationwide.
In 2007 he gave the Marden Lecture of the New York City Bar Association, titled “The Legal Profession and the Unmet Needs of the Immigrant Poor,” which launched over a decades’ worth of efforts to increase representation for immigrants in New York and beyond.
Beginning in 2008, Judge Katzmann convened a study group of legal field leaders, academics, policy makers and others to lead a first-of-its kind evaluation on the impact of representation in immigration cases. The study group’s findings, published in the Cardozo Law Journal, remain a foundational tools for efforts to increase access to counsel for immigrants.
Today, over a decade after Judge Katzmann began his efforts, New York leads the way in funding and programming to provide legal help to immigrants. The initiatives that grew directly out of Judge Katzmann’s efforts, such as the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project and the Immigrant Justice Corps have become models for the rest of the country.
Founded in 2013, NYIFUP’s programmatic structures and the data it has collected on the difference legal representation has on case outcomes have helped improve access to lawyers for detained and non-detained immigrants throughout the country. The Immigrant Justice Corps, which built on the success story of NYIFUP, is working to place new immigration lawyers into underserved areas and building jurisdiction-specific models to meet local needs in 33 cities across 11 states.
In every space he joined, Judge Katzmann made expanding the reach of justice his primary goal, former colleagues recalled. In 2012, he approached leadership of the New York State Bar Association and convinced them to start a committee dedicated to improving the quality of representation for immigrant New Yorkers.
“We are grateful to Judge Katzmann in spearheading our committee’s efforts. Those of us who have been privileged to work with him honor his life and remain inspired by his work and dedication as we continue to do our best to emulate his example,” Joanne Macri, one of the founding chairs of the bar association’s Special Committee on Immigration Representation said.
In consultation with Judge Katzmann, the committee issued guidelines for professional conduct for immigration attorneys and launched numerous other initiatives that culminated in a resolution calling on New York state to enact the first state-based law creating a right to counsel for all indigent New Yorkers facing deportation.
“What Judge Katzmann demonstrated over and over again was his ability to build coalitions. He had a rare combination of grace, patience, intelligence and leadership that he used to bring others together to explore thorny, complex problems,” Lenni Benson, Distinguished Professor of Immigration and Human Rights Law at New York Law School said.
These achievements in immigrant access to counsel are part of a legacy that inspired Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whom he mentored and guided through her confirmation process for the Supreme Court and who remained a lifelong friend.
Judge Katzmann’s beliefs that all voices should be included in our democracy did not stop at immigrants. He launched the Justice for All: Courts and the Community Center out of the Second Circuit courthouse to develop cohesive outreach strategies on civics education. And in 2019 he organized the first-ever civics conference for judges and staff to expand their educational outreach.
To all who knew him, Judge Katzmann was defined by his passion for justice; his belief in the role of the courts not as a political tool, but as a way to create a more equitable society; and by his unfailing gentle kindness and humility.
“He went far beyond the call of duty out of a personal sense that he could do more to increase access to counsel, and all of us in the advocacy community are forever grateful. He changed the course of people’s lives, and many careers, including mine.” Andrea Saenz, attorney in charge of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project at Brooklyn Defender Services, said.
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When I launched Immigrant ARC, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to justice for all New Yorkers, last year, I emailed Judge Katzmann to let him know. He invited me to his chambers to tell him more. I sat there, looking in awe around me, unable to believe one of the country’s most powerful judges had found twenty minutes in his schedule and seemed to want nothing more than to spend them hearing about my idea. Each of us have a story like that of Judge Katzmann — a story of him taking the time to listen to our efforts to increase access to counsel for immigrants, of offering his wisdom and encouraging us along the way on this shared journey with him as a guide.
Camille Mackler is the Executive Director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative (Immigrant ARC), a legal service provider collaborative of over 80 organizational members.