Henry Putzel Jr., Supreme Court ‘reporter of decisions’ and civil rights lawyer, dies at 99


Henry V. Putzel Jr., shown when he worked for the U.S. Supreme Court. (Courtesy of the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)
September 3, 2013

Henry Putzel Jr., a civil rights lawyer during the era of U.S. Supreme Court-ordered desegregation who later worked for the high court editing and polishing its rulings and opinions, died Sept. 2 at his home in Peterborough, N.H. He was 99.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Henry “Pete” Putzel III.

As “reporter of decisions” at the Supreme Court from 1964 to 1979, Mr. Putzel encapsulated opinions and prepared a syllabus of the decisions, often in intricate consultation with the nine justices. He was the 13th person to hold the position since the court’s establishment in 1789.

Reporters of decisions are expert grammarians. Although they do not delve into the substance of rulings, they must have an unfailing instinct about when legal citations or quotations may be amiss in a justice’s opinion.

“The work of the reporter of decisions is not known to the public but is of great importance to the courts, the legal profession and to the public,” Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said at the time of Mr. Putzel’s retirement. “Mr. Putzel has performed the exacting duties of that important office with great distinction and in keeping with the tradition of the 12 men who preceded him in that position.”

Mr. Putzel described himself as a guardian against “mod words” that defied their dictionary definition. Members of the court were as susceptible as anyone else to fashionable words that nonetheless contributed to “cheapening the currency of language,” he once told the legal scholar Paul R. Baier.

Mr. Putzel and Justice Harry A. Blackmun exchanged confidences over their mutual disdain for “parameter” in the non-geometric sense. Blackmun, he later recounted, “jokingly told me one day that he had read the riot act to his colleagues and said he would not vote with them in any case where they used the word parameter.”

Although Mr. Putzel said he often disagreed with the opinions of Justice Robert H. Jackson, he admired his concise, stylish approach to language. He was fond of citing Jackson’s statement that the high court is “not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.”

There have been only 16 reporters of decisions in the past 224 years, and Mr. Putzel was exacting about upholding certain traditions of the job. In addition to a legal pedigree, the reporter needs to be a “word nut,” he said. But at his essence, the perfect candidate should be even more than that, Mr. Putzel conceded. “I think he should be a double revolving peripatetic nit-picker.”

During his 15-year court tenure, Mr. Putzel edited or co-edited 64 volumes of the United States Reports, bound volumes of the court’s opinions.

One change that occurred under his watch was the release of headnotes — the colloquial three- or four-page summary of an opinion and key legal holdings — at the moment a ruling was handed down.

The headnotes, which cannot be cited as legal precedent, had formerly been released months after an opinion became public. Mr. Putzel said the court ordered the change mostly to help the deadline-oriented news media.

Frank D. Wagner, who served as reporter of decisions from 1987 to 2010, said Mr. Putzel “was a highly intelligent man who cared deeply about the language and the veracity of opinions.”

The pleasure of the work, Wagner said, was the chance to “make a perfect law book if you were good enough to do that,” referring to the bound volumes of the court’s opinions. “You could make sure that everything in every opinion was exactly right, in technical terms like manner of citation and quotation.”

Henry Vetsburg Putzel Jr. was born Oct. 8, 1913, in Denver, where his father was an executive with American Metal Co. He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and St. Louis and was a 1935 graduate of Yale University and a 1938 graduate of its law school.

He worked for the federal Office of Price Administration before joining the Justice Department in 1945. He shifted into civil rights cases over the next few years, a time when the civil rights section of the department was considered the “ugly duckling of the criminal division” and “a little group off the mainstream,” he later told the legal scholar Risa Lauren Goluboff.

A watershed moment was the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools. Mr. Putzel traveled in the South to enforce compliance. One of his most important cases, which presaged the 1957 Little Rock integration crisis by a year, arose in the cotton-ginning community of Hoxie, Ark.

The Hoxie school board peacefully integrated 25 black students into a school system of 1,000 whites. Then white supremacist groups rolled into town, collaborating with local race-baiters to launch a terror-and-petition campaign to revoke the board’s decision.

In the Hoxie showdown, Mr. Putzel filed a “friend of the court” brief on the school board’s side in a federal appellate court in St. Louis. He cited the federal government’s “obligation to ensure respect for fundamental human rights.” The school board prevailed.

The Justice Department formed a new Civil Rights Division in 1957, and Mr. Putzel was named to lead its voting and elections section. He was in that job when Chief Justice Earl Warren hired him as reporter of decisions.

His wife, the former Eleanor Eiseman, whom he married in 1939, died in 1998. Survivors include three children, Henry Putzel III of Brooklyn and Sharon, Conn., Roger Putzel of Jericho, Vt., and Judith Putzel of Nelson, N.H.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In his oral history with Baier, Mr. Putzel provided humanizing insights into the justices. He recalled the October many years ago when there was a stir in the court as a messenger began passing Chief Justice Warren notes from behind the velvet curtains.

“He would smile or frown or show no emotion and then another note would come and people began to wonder what these notes could be about,” Mr. Putzel said. “Well, it wasn’t until some years later that I found out that the World Series was going on. He was a great baseball fan, great sports fan of all kinds, and at the end of each inning the messenger was delivering to the bench the box score at the end of the inning.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”