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Leading constitutional law scholar Gerald Gunther dead at 75

Gerald Gunther, a constitutional law scholar whose casebook on the subject is the bible for thousands of law students, and who was at times mentioned as a Supreme Court prospect, died at his home on Stanford's campus on July 30. He was 75.

The cause of death was lung cancer, said his son, Andrew Gunther.

Gunther, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, emeritus, published dozens of essays and books on legal matters, most notably a biography, Learned Hand: The Judge and the Man (Alfred A. Knopf. Inc.: 1994).

Gunther served as a mentor to some of the leading lawyers and jurists of his time, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen M. Sullivan.

"He was a beloved teacher to four decades of law students, an astute and brilliant analyst of the law, a scholar of impeccable intellectual integrity, and a man of unbounded generosity and unstinting kindness to all those who worked with him," said Sullivan.

Friends and colleagues also remembered him as a true intellectual who not only could speak authoritatively about law and art, but could also comment on the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis boxing match and translate Winnie the Pooh into German.

"His subtlety, situation sense, learning and professionalism were unsurpassed by any other constitutional law scholar," said former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper, a constitutional law scholar. "None was taken more seriously by Supreme Court justices and his colleagues. As my closest friend at Stanford, Gerry was also my teacher throughout my career. Nobody will be able to take his place."

Perhaps Gunther's greatest contribution was the casebook, Constitutional Law, which, beginning in the 1960s, became the most widely used constitutional law text in American law schools, greatly shaping the field of constitutional law. "It set the gold standard for casebooks to follow," noted Sullivan, who became co-author of the book's 13th edition, published in 1997. The late Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote in 1994 that the casebook was "the leading publication in the field, from which a generation of American lawyers have learned constitutional law." In 1990, Casper, then provost of the University of Chicago, said in an interview, "It is quite rare for a casebook to make an independent contribution, but his certainly has. It is a reflective, learned casebook, which places the cases and the problems in a context which is both historical and philosophical and which gives the reader Gunther's own sense that the law is a worthy subject matter, to be taken seriously, and one which is not altogether open to manipulation, by law teacher, student, lawyer or judge."

Born in 1927 in Usingen im Taunus, Germany, Gunther emigrated as a young boy to the United States with his family in 1938, just ahead of Nazi Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia. He settled and grew up in New York City. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he earned a master's degree in public law and government from Columbia University and a law degree from Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude. He was an editor of the Law Review, and later served for 12 years on the Committee to Visit Harvard Law School.

Gunther once described himself as "an insecure young fellow, a German Jewish refugee who had spent his teenage years in a poor section of Brooklyn." But he went on to obtain the most prestigious early legal positions, serving as law clerk to Judge Learned Hand on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then to Chief Justice Earl Warren on the U.S. Supreme Court.

From 1956 to 1962, Gunther was a faculty member at Columbia University School of Law. He was recruited to the then-rising Stanford Law School in a faculty hiring move remembered on campus as "the great raid on Columbia." Gunther spent his next four decades teaching at Stanford, with visiting stints at Harvard Law School, Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law, Brooklyn Law School, Northwestern School of Law and Arizona State University College of Law.

Gunther's classes were extremely popular and highly rated, Sullivan said, and his students noted the personal touch he gave their supervision. "Gerry was gracious enough to spend hours talking to me in his office on any number of subjects, and I would always leave shaking my head in awe," said Duane Quaini, chairman of the law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and a 1970 Stanford Law School graduate. Quaini said he chose to attend Stanford after hearing Gunther speak, deciding that he wished to study personally with him. "My entire way of thinking and the way I approach problems can be traced back to Gerry," Quaini said.

In addition to his devotion to teaching, Gunther spent 20 years working on his biography of Judge Hand. The book garnered him the Erwin N. Griswold Triennial Prize from the Supreme Court Historical Society for "the best original work pertaining to the Supreme Court in the preceding three-year period" (1995); and the Triennial Award of the Order of the Coif (a legal honor society) for "written work evidencing creative legal talent of the highest order" (1999). The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, "Learned Hand was a great judge and a fascinating man, and Gerald Gunther has done him full justice in this rich, informed, and absorbing book."

An expert on the U.S. Supreme Court and its jurisprudence, Gunther was periodically considered a leading candidate for appointment to that court. A 1987 poll in the New York Law Journal ranked Gunther as the "best qualified" choice for appointment to the Supreme Court, "ideology aside."

Gunther did not make it onto the Supreme Court, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of his students from his time at Columbia, did. In July 1993, Gunther testified on her behalf at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting that he had helped her get her first clerkship. "Although I don't claim a great track record in predicting anything -- football, soccer, elections, you name it -- I have taken special delight in the fact that my expectations about Ruth were entirely, and to me not surprisingly, fulfilled."

Long a leading advocate for a broad approach to freedom of speech, and an opponent of codes to curb bigoted expression on campus, Gunther once recalled the origins of his views, which occurred during his early days when he was faced with German schoolteachers who mistreated him for being Jewish and bright. Noting that he quickly learned to combat words with words, he told an interviewer in 1993 that he dedicated himself to "walking the sometimes difficult path of denouncing the bigots' hateful ideas with all my power, yet at the same time challenging any community's attempt to suppress hateful ideas by force of law."

Gunther was awarded honorary degrees by the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn Law School, Duquesne University and Valparaiso University. He was a visiting faculty member at a number of law schools, including Harvard, Brooklyn and Arizona State University. He received several awards, including the Learned Hand Medal for Excellence in Federal Jurisprudence (1988), the Richard J. Maloney Prize for Distinguished Contributions to Legal Education (1990) and the Bernard Witkin Medal of the State Bar of California (1995).

Gunther became a professor emeritus in May 1995 but he remained active as a teacher. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, of Stanford; his brother, Herbert Gutenstein of Riverdale, N.Y.; two sons, Daniel Gunther of San Francisco and Andrew Gunther of Santa Cruz, Calif., and two grandchildren.

A community memorial service will be held in September.



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