In Memoriam: Daniel J. Meltzer ’75

Professor Daniel Meltzer

Professor Daniel Meltzer ’75

Daniel J. Meltzer ’75, a renowned legal scholar and expert on federal courts and criminal procedure, and a valued legal advisor to President Barack Obama ’91, died on May 24, after a courageous battle with cancer.

Meltzer was the Story Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he served on the faculty since 1982. From 2009 to 2010, he took a leave of absence to serve as the Principal Deputy Counsel to President Obama, and later served as a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and as chairman of the Intelligence Oversight Board.

In conveying the news of Meltzer’s death to the HLS community, Dean Martha Minow wrote: “No one has better exemplified the highest qualities of judgment, rigorous analysis, devotion to public service, and sheer kindness.  What a privilege it was to know Dan and to work alongside him. Faculty and staff, deans and students, Presidents and other public leaders sought out Dan for his exceptional counsel and wisdom. He made the world better in countless ways. As a teacher and mentor to hundreds of students; as a trusted and thoughtful academic colleague; as an outstanding legal scholar and collaborator; and as a distinguished lawyer in public service and private practice, he demonstrated what it is to act with integrity, to reason with clarity, and to greet all with kindness.”

Meltzer joined the Harvard Law School faculty in 1982 as an Assistant Professor of Law. He gained tenure in 1987, and later served as Associate Dean (1989-93). He was appointed to the Story chair in 1998, and became Vice Dean for Physical Planning in 2003, steering the school’s successful planning and construction of a major new building on its campus, during the deanship of Elena Kagan ’86, now Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Dan Meltzer’s formidable intellect and impeccable judgment were rivaled only by his warmth, kindness, and generosity of spirit,” said Kagan.  “He brought all those qualities to Harvard Law School, which is an immeasurably better place because he was there.  And he combined these qualities  with a deep sense of public service; in all his scholarship and other activities, he strove to improve the way the law works for people.  No one has ever listened more thoughtfully or given wiser advice.  I learned from him every day, and I count myself blessed to have been his friend.”

Meltzer authored numerous scholarly writings and law review articles, including a major article published with HLS Professor Richard Fallon on the constitutional rights of detainees in the battle against terror (Fallon, Richard H. & Daniel J. Meltzer. “Habeas Corpus Jurisdiction, Substantive Rights and the War on Terror,” 120 Harvard Law Review 2029 (2007)). Along with Fallon and HLS Professors John Manning ’85 and David Shapiro ’57, he was co-editor of the leading casebook on federal courts, Hart & Wechsler’s “The Federal Courts and The Federal System” (Foundation Press 6th ed. 2013).

Fallon described Meltzer as “the wisest, kindest man I knew. His superb judgment made him a font of wisdom in matters large and small, professional and personal.  Dan was the best professional colleague I could imagine: he challenged me and made me a better scholar.  He was also a marvelous husband and father.  He loved richly and was richly loved in return.  His loss leaves me saddened beyond words.”

Meltzer’s colleague Vicki Jackson, the Thurgood Marshall Professor of Constitutional Law at HLS, said, “Dan combined brilliance of mind and clarity of thinking with superb judgment, about law and about life. This does not fully capture why so many of his friends (my husband and myself included) loved him. Dan’s modesty and humor, his uncountable acts of thoughtfulness, his enormous love for and enjoyment of his family, and his great capacity for friendships, will be so missed.”

During his White House service, Meltzer was credited as a key player on nearly every major legal issue faced by the White House Counsel’s Office, with a portfolio that ranged from domestic policy (including the Affordable Care Act) to national security matters and also the selection and preparation of high court appointees. (In a fitting testament to his lasting contributions as a legal scholar, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court – whom Meltzer helped prepare for Senate confirmation hearings — cited his scholarship in an opinion for the majority, Wellness International Network, LTD. et al v. Sharif, released by the Court on May 26, two days after his passing.)

Upon returning to Harvard Law School from the Obama White House, Meltzer reflected on his time there in an interview with The Harvard Law Bulletin. “I never got to the point where it didn’t feel a little bit special to be walking into the West Wing every morning,” Meltzer said. “Among the things of which I am proud is the relationship that our office established with the Department of Justice, in which we sought to respect the department’s independence and our shared commitment to compliance with the law while also striving to ensure that the president’s views and concerns were given appropriate consideration when the administration was formulating its legal positions.”

In 2013, the prestigious American Law Institute (ALI) announced that Meltzer would be its new director, and only the sixth in its 90-year history. The Institute—made up of more than 4,300 lawyers, judges and law professors of the highest qualifications—drafts, discusses, revises and publishes restatements of the law, model statutes, and principles of law that are enormously influential in U.S. courts and legislatures, as well as in legal scholarship and education. But Meltzer fell ill before he could fully take the helm of the ALI, and his battle with cancer forced him to relinquish a role he had been excited to assume.

Meltzer was the son of renowned lawyer and law professor Bernard Meltzer, a former Nuremberg prosecutor and a faculty member at the University of Chicago. He was also the nephew of former Attorney General Edward Levi. He graduated from Harvard College in 1972 and then attended Harvard Law School, where he became President of the Harvard Law Review and was awarded the Fay Diploma. He served as a law clerk for Judge Carl McGowan of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (1975-76), and then clerked for Associate Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1976-77 Term.

From 1977 to 1978 Meltzer was a special assistant to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education & Welfare. He then spent three years in private practice as an associate at Williams & Connolly, before joining the HLS faculty in 1982.

Meltzer is survived by his wife, Ellen Semonoff ’75, and by his sons Joshua and Jonathan.

“With his remarkable wife Ellen and sons Joshua and Jonathan by his side, Dan battled his cancer with grace and courage and remained optimistic throughout, leaving us all with a model for how to bring our best selves to every day,” Minow said. “The absence of this great man, true mensch, and exceptional friend will be felt deeply and widely throughout our community, our School, our profession, and our nation.”

A memorial service to celebrate the life and work of Professor Meltzer will take place at the law school on Wednesday, June 17 at 4:00 p.m. in the Wasserstein Caspersen Clinical Building, 2036 Milstein East.