A judge of integrity, decency

Posted: October 01, 2012

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll

On Friday at the U.S. Courthouse at Sixth and Market there was a memorial service for U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak, who died in Philadelphia on May 8 at the age of 89. A 1978 judicial appointee of President Jimmy Carter, he became one of the nation's genuinely distinguished jurists.

Like his judicial service, Judge Pollak's qualification for the judiciary was exceptional. After graduating at the top of his 1948 Yale Law School class, in 1948-49 he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge, then joined a major New York law firm. Soon thereafter Thurgood Marshall, then head of NAACP's Legal Defense Fund (and later a Supreme Court justice) recruited him as a brief-writing volunteer for the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the separate-but-equal racial school doctrine.

While continuing years-long voluntary work for the NAACP, Pollak successfully argued leading civil-rights cases in the Supreme Court. He went on the Yale Law School faculty in 1955 and, 10 years later, became the school's dean until 1970. In 1974 he was appointed to the University of Pennsylvania Law School faculty and the following year became dean, an office he held until he went on the District Court in 1978. He served there until 1992 when he became a senior judge in semiretirement.

Among the tributes Judge Pollak received at his service, surely none reached as far back into such an obscure experience as this one in my personal history. I have forgotten most details of our long friendship, but I'll never forget his character.

When Lou Pollak was a law student at Yale, I was an undergraduate there. We were both in the class of 1948 in our respective schools. What began as our casual friendship grew from recent Army service we had during World War II. Soon after the war ended, in early September 1945 on campuses throughout the nation, great numbers of students were veterans. Some of us believed that, rather than joining some organization that glorified veterans as superpatriots, we should choose one with the politically responsible view that we were "Citizens First, Veterans Second." That was the motto of an organization founded in 1944, the American Veterans Committee (AVC). It was politically liberal for that era, rejecting racial segregation policies, and its Southern chapters were racially integrated. Before we met, Lou Pollak and I had each joined the AVC at Yale.

No one there was more active and articulate in AVC meetings than Lou Pollak. That's where I quickly got to know him and enjoy his warm friendship, which he always seasoned with a delightful sense of humor. For me, the root of that friendship was my great respect for the quality of Lou's participation in those AVC meetings. A deep believer in civil liberties, he was remarkably intelligent, genuinely constructive, and thoroughly modest. That's who he was throughout his entire remarkable career as a lawyer, political advocate, academic leader, and federal judge.

Whatever ideological differences we had among our AVC members, Lou always stated his positions with great clarity, advocating and defending them with unfailing civility. Free of any trace of arrogance in argument, he was never discourteous to opponents. All his life he was an ideal example of that increasingly threatened species, a gentleman.

Today - and tomorrow - the relevance and timeliness of this bit of obscure personal history is that since we first met well over 60 years ago, I have never forgotten that Lou Pollak was a person of sound moral principle, honesty, and sincere character. When those precious traits are inseparable, as they were in him, they are called integrity. Whether sitting on a magistrate's bench or the Supreme Court, to serve the cause of justice responsibly every judge must have integrity. Throughout all those years I was privileged to have had his friendship and all those years he served our nation with such distinction, integrity was the essence of Judge Louis H. Pollak's character.

Whether it was the warmth of his life-affirming smile, his unfailing ability to sense the feelings of others, or the comfort of his sympathy, Lou Pollak had a great heart. That's not necessary to become a judge, but it's essential to become one of Lou's stature. His integrity and humanity deeply touched all that he did as a jurist. They are why we remember him with such profound respect and gratitude.


Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author.

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