In Remembrance: Henry Putzel Jr. ’35, ’38JD Died on September 2 2013

Henry Putzel jr., who edited and summarized US Supreme Court decisions as an officer of the court, died at his retirement home on September 2, 2013. He was 99, barely a month shy of his 100th birthday.

Mr. Putzel, a devotee of downhill skiing, long hikes, and raw oysters nearly his whole life, had been in declining health in recent weeks but remained alert and in good spirits to the end. He had suffered from congestive heart failure.

As the 13th reporter of decisions of the Supreme Court, Mr. Putzel shepherded justices’ opinions through an exacting process designed to ensure that written decisions reflected the intentions of the court in an increasingly complex and historically important legal environment.

A graduate of Yale and Yale Law School, he lived in Washington from 1942 until his retirement in 1983. He was a civil rights lawyer in the justice department in the years of court-ordered desegregation, before mass demonstrations brought down many of the country’s stubborn racial barriers he had been fighting in the courts. In one of the earliest tests of local school desegregation in the Deep South, he successfully defended the school board of Hoxie, Arkansas, against powerful segregationists, including the state’s governor, when the local board decided to follow the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 ruling that segregated schools are inherently unequal and unconstitutional.

Mr. Putzel was the first head of the voting and elections section of the department’s Civil Rights division when he was invited to meet Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1964—the year before passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965—to discuss taking the job of reporter of decisions. In an oral history recounted in the Supreme Court Historical Society’s 1980 Yearbook, he said the chief justice told him he himself “would not take this job on a bet” because he wasn’t the type who liked dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Mr. Putzel, however, was, by his own account, a “word nut” with a special interest in English usage in law. He loved the job.

One of his responsibilities was writing the headnotes that precede the court’s formal opinions. The headnotes summarize the opinions to provide guidance to news reporters, attorneys, and scholars on the key elements of decisions. While they do not carry the force of law, the headnotes are an art form by themselves because they distill complicated and often disparate views expressed by the justices into holdings understandable by the public.

Mr. Putzel served under both Warren and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who paid tribute to him upon his retirement by saying in open court: “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. 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.”

Asked to describe the duties of the reporter during an interview for his oral history, Mr. Putzel said, “Well, first of all, he has to be a lawyer. And I'd say he should be a word nut. And in the third place, I think he, well, I think he should be a double revolving peripatetic nit-picker.”

For the rest of his life, he wore the third requirement like a brand. While catching countless mistakes and typos in the words of others, he never felt compelled to defend his practice of ignoring most popular style books by never capitalizing the “j” in the abbreviation for junior that followed his own name.

After retiring from his position at the court, Mr. Putzel and his wife, Eleanor, moved to Nelson, New Hampshire, where they lived for 15 years. Mrs. Putzel died in 1998.

Mr. Putzel was born in Denver, Colorado, where his father was in the mining business, and grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri. He was fascinated by rocks and fossils, but his father advised him he couldn’t make a decent living as a geologist, and he studied law instead.

Mr. Putzel continued to ski, play tennis, and hike well into his 90s. He bought new skis to celebrate his 90th birthday and a new tennis racquet later. At a family reunion in July to mark his coming 100th birthday on October 8, he sipped a martini and consumed two dozen oysters and, after dinner, led some 60 relatives in a songfest based on his repertoire of dozens, perhaps hundreds of humorous and popular songs from his college days. Not surprisingly he was a stickler for lyrics and rarely forgot a line.

Mr. Putzel is survived by three children: Henry Putzel III of New York and Sharon, Connecticut; Roger Putzel of Jericho, Vermont; and Judith Putzel of Keene, New Hampshire; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

—Submitted by the family



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