Robert A. Katzmann (1953-2021) was a political scientist and law professor who, in 1981, joined what is now the Governance Studies program at Brookings. In 1999, he became a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, serving as chief judge of the court from 2013 to 2020. He was the first federal judge to have a Ph.D. in Government and a J.D.


Robert A. Katzmann promoted his commitment to effective government as a political scientist (Ph.D. Harvard, 1978), a legal scholar (J.D., Yale, 1980), and a federal judge.

As a senior fellow at Brookings, he published works on the Federal Trade Commission, disability policy, and legislative judicial relations. His “Courts and Congress” (1997) explored ways in which judges and legislators could better understand each other’s work. Katzmann was also Walsh Professor of Government, Professor of Law, and Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University until 1999.

Photo of Robert A. Katzmann courtesy of his family. All rights reserved.
Photo of Robert A. Katzmann courtesy of his family. All rights reserved.

President Clinton nominated him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in March 1999, on the recommendation of one of his teachers, Senator Daniel Moynihan. Confirmed by voice vote– a “confirmation,” Moynihan accurately predicted, “that history will one day record” –Katzmann became a well-regarded judge, whose colleagues praised the quality of his opinions, his work ethic and commitment to collegiality. Former Georgetown law professor and law clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Viet Dinh, wrote “Judge Katzmann was a judicial craftsman at the top of his art…”

Katzmann was born in New York City in 1953. His father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, his mother, born of Russian immigrants. In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s words, they instilled in him and his siblings—including twin-brother Gary, a judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade— the “centrality of treating people with dignity and kindness.” He joined a court of appeals whose caseload included many appeals from the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals. The records in those cases showed that few non-citizens in removal proceedings had lawyers and even fewer had quality legal representation. His 2007 Marden Lecture –“The Legal Profession and the Unmet Needs of the Immigrant Poor” –challenged the New York City Bar to act. And he convened what became the Study Group on Immigrant Representation—including lawyers in private practice, immigration advocates, government attorneys, and academics—leading to the creation of the Immigrant Justice Corps, which provides fellowships to new lawyers represent immigrants in court proceedings across the country

In 2013, he became chief judge of the Second Circuit, which includes the federal courts of Connecticut, New York and Vermont, and soon launched a circuit-wide initiative, Justice for All: Courts and the Community, which welcomes people of all ages, but especially students and teachers, to learn about courts and government. Although not the first court to launch such an effort, the Second Circuit’s is noteworthy for its breadth, its outreach to schools throughout New York City and beyond, its state-of-the-art learning center in the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in lower Manhattan, and, in October, 2019, the first national conference on courts and civic education. Katzmann’s commitment to connecting courts and communities also underscored his service as a Trustee of the New York Public Library.

Katzmann was a political scientist after, as well as before, he went on the bench. In 2001, the American Political Science Association presented him its Charles E. Merriam Award, for “significant contribution to the art of government through the application of social science research.” He blended his social science acumen and judicial experience in his widely-used magnum opus, “Judging Statutes”, which encourages judges to understand how Congress does its work and signals priorities. “[D]rawing on my political science background,” he wrote , “I know it is worth the effort to appreciate how Congress produces its work product.” He expressed skepticism, for example, about some judges’ heavy reliance on dictionaries in interpreting statutes and on canons of statutory construction. ”[W]hen courts fail to appreciate the dynamics of the legislative process,” he wrote, “they undermine their capacity to reach sound judicial decisions as to legislative meaning.”

Judge Robert A. Katzmann
Judge Robert Katzmann, © Courtesy of NYU School of Law

In early 2021 Katzmann took senior status and accepted a position as Professor of Practice at New York University School of Law, which also announced the creation of the annual, three-part, Robert A. Katzmann Symposium. In June 2021, he died of pancreatic cancer.

The Katzmann Initiative in Brookings’s Governance Studies program honors Robert Katzmann’s work and promotes his legacy of exploring practical ways to encourage interbranch comity and public understanding of politics and government.