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Appreciation of the late Gene Gressman

Jack Boger, the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Law, writes the following letter in remembrance of UNC’s law professor emeritus Gene Gressman, who died yesterday. We know that many SCOTUSblog readers knew Professor Gressman personally, and many more knew of him through his teaching, writing, and Supreme Court practice.

Dear Friends,

In a season of sudden sadness over the loss of treasured senior colleagues, I write to share news that Gene Gressman, William Rand  Kenan, Jr. Professor of Law Emeritus and one of the nation’s leading authorities on appellate practice and the Supreme Court of the United States, died Thursday afternoon at 4:15 pm, at age 92, after several years of declining health. Married for 60 years to Nan Gressman, who predeceased him in 2004, Gene is survived by four grown children:  William, Nancy, Margot, and Eric. One of the most prolific and distinguished scholars in Carolina Law’s long history, Gene was known by his colleagues for his indefatigable energy (he regularly filed Supreme Court briefs and certiorari petitions into his late-80s), his dry wit, and his love of the law — a constant observer of the Supreme Court and its unfolding decisions and doctrines.

Born on April 18, 1917 in Lansing, Michigan, Gene was the son of a fundamentalist minister and lawyer. He entered the University of Michigan, graduating with an A.B. in 1938 and a J.D. (with distinction) in 1940. He served in the General Counsel’s office of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington from 1940-43 before beginning one of his most distinctive periods of public service — over four years from 1943-48 as a devoted law clerk to Justice Frank Murphy, the longest clerkship in the modern history of the Supreme Court. “You are one of the most superb characters I have met in my lifetime,” Justice Murphy wrote of his young clerk at the end of his tenure there. In  1948,Gressman began nearly 30 years of private practice in labor law and appellate practice with Van Arkel & Kaiser in Washington. Yet in 1949, his most enduring contribution to modern American law began, as he and Robert Stern commenced work on the first edition of Supreme Court Practice, which quickly became ‘the Bible,’ not only for Supreme Court practitioners nationwide, but for generations of clerks and Justices to this day (many of whom have written Gene to thank him for his erudition about their Court). “Stern & Gressman” is now in its ninth edition, still considered “the definitive resource” on the rules, procedures, and practices of the Court.

In 1977, Gene left law practice to become a William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Over his career, he would author more than 75 law review articles and several textbooks. The 5th ed. of his Cases and Materials on Constitutional Law, co-authored with David Crump, David Day, and Charles Rhodes, appeared in 2009. A 1952 law review article entitled The Unhappy History of Civil Rights Legislation is often considered the most important spur in the modern revival of the use of Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.  Gene was also a remarkably active advocate before the appellate courts. He filed more than 400 petitions, motions, and briefs in the Supreme Court of the United States, and orally argued 13 cases there, including Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha in 1983, where he was tapped by the United States House of Representatives to represent it as counsel before the Court. Justice O’Connor once greeted him with the tribute, “Professor Gressman, North Carolina’s gift to the Supreme Court.” A marvelous teacher, Gene won the Frederick B. McCall Award for Teaching Excellence at UNC in 1987, and he was honored when the first-year advocacy awards at UNC Law were named the “Gressman/Pollitt Awards” for Gene and his long-time friend and colleague, Professor Daniel Pollitt.

Gene’s first retirement came in 1987, and at that time, former UNC Chancellor Bill Aycock offered a  tribute to his colleague: “He is an acknowledged master of procedure, together with the technical detail necessarily embraced therein. Yet, he is a sturdy disciple of the generative principles of the law. Ever mindful of our heritage, his diligent study of the past usually leads his mind to the edge of the future. When he is on the threshold of new insights, his eyes dance like the flames of an open fire. He has always been generous in sharing those insights. As a colleague, he has a gentle demeanor but an inward vigor. His knowledge of the law, his devotion to justice, and his personal character have fulfilled the highest hopes of his colleagues. Truly, he has brought to us the ideal blend of excellence as a teacher, scholar, writer and practitioner of law.”

The flame still burning brightly in 1987, Gene found he could not truly retire at 70, and he began a long association with Seton Hall Law School where he was the Richard J. Hughes Distinguishing Visiting Professor of Law from 1987-88 and again from 1989-94. His colleagues and students at Seton Hall eventually named their appellate moot court program after him.  Returning to Carolina in 1994 as an emeritus professor, Gene’s Supreme Court work continued, along with additional teaching of a Supreme Court Practice seminar that let generations of students craft their first petitions for certiorari and practice oral arguments before his gentle, experienced eyes. No one logged longer or more regular hours in Van Hecke-Wettach Hall than this 80 year old plus faculty member churning out briefs, articles, and a constant stream of bon mots and acerbic comments on Supreme Court opinions that failed to meet his high standards.

Gene was devoted to his talented artist spouse, Nan, whose acrylic paintings, often in oval form, he generously donated to the School of Law upon her death. Many of them presently adorn the law school’s rotunda.  Gene himself adorned the life of Carolina Law, and indeed the life of American law, for nearly 70 years. He will be greatly missed.

–Jack Boger, Dean
University of North Carolina School of Law