In Memoriam: Judge Robert A. Katzmann’s Lasting Legacy for Immigrants in Need of Competent Representation

Memoriam written by Cyrus Mehta and Bob Juceam.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association mourns the passing away of Judge Robert A. Katzmann, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who was a friend, exceptional leader and a great inspiration. His influence went far beyond the courtroom.

In 2008, after delivering a seminal lecture at the New York City Bar titled “The Legal Profession and the Unmet Needs of the Immigrant Poor” Judge Katzmann led a study group of lawyers called The Katzmann Study Group, many of whom were AILA members, who met early in the morning to examine how the private bar and legal service organizations could provide competent representation to detained noncitizens. A study by the group revealed that 60% of detained immigrants in New York City and 27% of non-detained immigrants did not have counsel by the time their cases were completed. Individuals who were transferred elsewhere and who remained detained and out of New York were unrepresented 79% of the time. The same study indicated that where there was competent representation of those who have been released or never detained, 74% had a successful outcome. These efforts culminated in the establishment of the Immigrant Justice Corps and the New York Family Unity Project, which today ensure that detained immigrants in New York get competent representation. 79,000 immigrants and family members have been served to date by fellows of the Immigrant Justice Corps.

Judge Katzmann is also the author of notable Second Circuit decisions involving immigration law. One of his last decisions was Cuthill v. Blinken where he masterfully dissected the complex Child Status Protection Act by finding a textual path between two distinct sections to hold that a child’s age was protected and thus not shut out of the faster green card queue even when the parent naturalized. Judge Katzmann’s interpretation of the CSPA was in keeping with his philosophy of interpreting statutes, elaborated in his book “Judging Statutes” (2014), which rejected strict textualism in favor of determining Congress’s purpose by reviewing memos, committee reports and other documents that led to the enactment of the law. Even in Cuthill v. Blinken, Judge Katzmann wrote that “[i]n addition to the text and structure of the statute, Congress’s purpose in enacting the CSPA — as reflected in the legislative history — can help us decipher the meaning of the statutory language.”

In Aris v. Mukasey, Judge Katzmann established that misadvice by a lawyer about a hearing date may constitute ineffective assistance of counsel resulting in the reopening of a removal order. It was in this decision that Judge Katzmann reaffirmed the lawyer’s solemn duty to promote competent representation by referring to his 2008 speech stating that “[m}embers of the bar enjoy a monopoly on legal practice…{a}nd for that reason, among others, lawyers, have a duty to render competent services to their clients.” In that same speech Judge Katzmann described the “lawyer’s duty to serve those unable to pay as not an act of charity or benevolence alone, but rather one of professional responsibility, reinforced by the terms under which the state has granted to the profession effective control of the legal system.”

Judge Katzmann was friends with many at AILA who found him to be humble and unassuming notwithstanding his exalted position as chief judge of the Second Circuit, and in 2010 he was honored with AILA’s Michael Maggio Pro Bono Award for his outstanding efforts in providing pro bono representation in the immigration field. It was through Judge Katzmann’s visionary leadership that members of the AILA-New York chapter in 2008 initiated a project to represent detained noncitizens at the Varick Street detention court. He met with AILA members at its 2010 annual meeting prompting adoption of a mandatory pledge to pro bono service, strengthening the national pro bono committee, establishing a pro bono officer in all chapters, engaging a full time national office pro bono coordinator, supporting chapter participation in the ABA’s now annual October Pro Bono Week initiatives and instituting in 2011 AILA’s first Annual Conference Pro Bono Clinic, a conference tradition now in its tenth year.

Judge Katzmann was the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany and grandson of immigrants from Russia. After finishing his schooling in the New York public educational system, Judge Katzmann received his A.B. (summa cum laude) from Columbia College, A.M. and PhD degrees in government from Harvard University, and a J.D. from the Yale Law School. Another lasting legacy of Judge Katzmann, in additional to his immigration initiatives, was to make the judicial system more accessible through Justice for All: Courts and Community. Audio of courtroom sessions were live-streamed for the first time during the pandemic.

While Judge Katzmann has left us too soon and will be sorely missed, it is hoped that his passing will serve as a catalyst for monumental change, and that the New York representation models he inspired will be replicated nationwide and enacted into the law to ensure that no noncitizen in removal proceedings is deported without representation.

Cite as AILA Doc. No. 21061431.