by J. Paul Oetken, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York
Judge Richard D. Cudahy, who served for 36 years on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, died last month at the age of 89. He was beloved by his family and friends, his colleagues, and his many law clerks. He was also admired as a brilliant and influential jurist whose opinions shaped the development of the law in myriad ways.
I served as one of Judge Cudahy’s law clerks from 1991 to 1992, and that year was one of the most rewarding and interesting of my career. The judge was not only a kind and generous boss; he was also a great teacher and mentor. We discussed every case in detail, and through that process I gained great insight into how he thought about law and justice.
Judge Cudahy’s approach to the law was humanistic and pragmatic; he was neither formalistic nor result-oriented. He cared deeply about the judicial craft, taking great care to write opinions that were well-reasoned and principled, while always being particularly sensitive to how legal doctrine affects people’s lives. His sense of fairness and even-handedness pervaded his evaluation of every case, regardless of the background of the litigants involved. In a prisoner’s appeal in a civil rights case, Judge Cudahy wrote (in response to a colleague’s economic analysis): “Since the financial net worth of most prisoners is zero and their economic value while incarcerated perhaps less than zero, it is not surprising that efforts to take them seriously as human beings are sometimes scorned. They are not all Jean Valjean, but they are people.”
The judge was modest as a jurist, just as he was modest as a person. He did not pretend that an outcome was obvious when it was not, nor did he construct fancy theories to dictate results of cases. He was an honest judge who practiced his craft straightforwardly.
He was also extraordinarily hard-working and well-prepared. Every night he would carry a heavy stack of briefs home with him. When we discussed our cases, he had always read the briefs thoroughly and had his own views (and questions) about each of the issues presented. He had high standards for his written opinions, going over drafts repeatedly until he was satisfied that an opinion was right, both in its result and in its explanation.