SUPREME COURT EXPERT, LEGAL SCHOLAR ROBERT L. STERN DEAD AT 91
Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1990
Veteran Supreme Court advocate and legal scholar Robert L. Stern passed away in Tucson, Arizona on January 17, 2000 at the age of 91. Mr. Stern had been battling Alzheimers for the past four years.
In over 65 years as a lawyer, Mr. Stern gained recognition as a giant of the appellate bar who won the respect, and often the friendship, of Supreme Court Justices from Louis Brandeis to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As an attorney in the U.S. Justice Department and then in over 40 years of private practice in Chicago with the law firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt, he argued approximately sixty cases in the United States Supreme Court, more high-court appearances by some measures than any other living attorney.
Mr. Stern's reputation was enhanced further by the authorship of two books. In 1950, he wrote the first edition of a treatise entitled Supreme Court Practice , with Professor Eugene Gressman. Now in its seventh edition with co-authors Stephen Shapiro and Kenneth Geller, this volume is regarded as the definitive reference work on litigation before the Supreme Court.
Mr. Stern's second book, Appellate Practice In The United States (1989), has also assisted countless practitioners and judges engaged in appellate litigation.
"His main passions were his family, the law, and his golf game," said his son Allan, "and the intensity of his devotion to all three helped sustain him a long life."
In 1983, Mr. Stern received the American Bar Foundation's annual award for excellence in legal research. He also served as advisor or member of national study groups that evaluated the Supreme Court's workload during the 1960s and 1970s.
"Robert Stern's 65-year career as a Supreme Court advocate, author, advisor and practice group architect contributed to the advancement of jurisprudence at the highest levels of the law," commented Debora de Hoyos, Mayer, Brown & Platt's Managing Partner. "In both public service and private practice, Bob impressed everyone he encountered -- from law students to Supreme Court Justices -- as a lawyer of uncommon integrity, ability and clarity. We will miss him dearly."
Mr. Stern worked for 13 years in the Office of the Solicitor General in the U.S. Justice Department, serving as the First Assistant from 1950-1954 and as Acting Solicitor General twice during that period, from August to November 1952 and from March 1953 to February 1954. While in that office, he supervised the federal government's Supreme Court litigation and briefed and argued some of the most important cases of his generation.
Those cases included landmark antitrust cases, such as Parker v. Brown , cases construing the Commerce Clause of the federal constitution, such as Southern Pacific Co . v. Arizona , and major criminal law cases such as the Rosenberg espionage case in 1953.
As a writer of briefs, Robert Stern participated in many of the major cases of the New Deal Era which defined the power of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. Those decisions modified previous restrictive interpretations of the constitution that had limited the federal government's ability to deal with social and economic problems during the Great Depression and were critical to promoting the New Deal agenda of President Franklin Roosevelt.
One of Stern's first arguments was a criminal case from Louisiana, in which the defendant was represented by Thurgood Marshall. This case marked the beginning of a long friendship with the future Supreme Court Justice. Later, but long before he became Solicitor General or a judge, Thurgood Marshall made efforts to have the Department of Justice file "friend of the court" briefs on behalf of his clients, usually in cases involving racial discrimination. In 1954, Mr. Stern was instrumental in persuading the Attorney General to file a brief for the federal government in opposition to school segregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education , which ended the era of "separate but equal" in the nation's schools.
In his numerous writings on appellate advocacy, Robert Stern recommended the use of straightforward, conversational writing and speaking that would ease the work of overburdened appellate judges. His conversational approach during oral argument was appreciated by the Justices who sometimes engaged in light-hearted dialogue with him. One December morning in 1945 he explained to them, "May it please the Court, I must confess I am neither as fresh nor as awake as I hoped to be this morning. The fact is that I spent the night pacing the corridor of a hospital where my wife, only a few hours ago, gave birth to my third child. I hope, therefore, the Court will indulge me, in case I should fall asleep during the argument." Chief Justice Harlan Stone nodded to him and cautioned, "Sir, your job is to keep US awake, not the other way around."
While at the Justice Department in the early 1950's, Mr. Stern persuaded his colleagues to adopt an "Honors Program" that authorized the hiring of high-ranking law students before graduation from law school. Until then, law students could not be employed as lawyers until they had been admitted to the bar, usually well into their first year after law school when it was too late to hire them. That change in policy, still followed almost 50 years later, attracts the nation's highest-ranking law students to clerkships in the federal Appellate Courts and the Supreme Court.
Robert Stern was born in New York City on September 18, 1908. In
high school he was the smallest boy in his class, but had the highest
grades. He was named Valedictorian of the Williams College class of
1929, then graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932.
In the Depression-era law school class of 738 students, Mr. Stern was
one of only 12 magna cum laude graduates. That class
produced two Supreme Court Justices, Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell,
with Justice William Brennan graduating a year later.
Despite his academic achievements, Mr. Stern did not qualify for the major New York law firms, most of which then discriminated against Jewish students. He was offered and gladly accepted a position in a small office at a salary of $25 per week.
He moved to the Justice Department in Washington in 1933 and eventually rose to what he described as "the best non-political career position in the government."
After twenty years of public service, Mr. Stern joined Mayer, Brown & Platt in Chicago, where he helped to build one of the nation's first, modern appellate practices. He also focused on the training of young lawyers in the firm. "Throughout a career spanning the better part of seven decades," added Debora De Hoyos, "Bob Stern projected a contagious enthusiasm for the practice of law coupled with an evangelical zest for bringing new, young lawyers into the profession. Every year he made a point of taking each of our summer associates out to lunch, regaling them with stories of Chief Justices, afternoon teas at the home of Justice Louis Brandeis, and more importantly, impressing upon them the responsibility, honor and privilege that came with serving as an officer of the court."
He remained with the firm for 41 years until his retirement in 1995.
Stern was married for 53 years to Terese Stern, who died in 1990. He is survived by his wife of 9 years, Helen Klemperer Stern, three sons, Lawrence, Kenneth, and Allan, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A service honoring the life of Robert Stern will be held on Saturday, June 10th at 10:30 am in the Sheraton North Shore Hotel in Northbrook.