Henry Putzel Jr. Oct. 8, 1913 -- Sept. 2, 2013 U.S. Supreme Court 'Reporter of Decisions'

Article excerpt

Henry Putzel Jr., a civil rights lawyer during the era of U.S. Supreme Court-ordered desegregation who later worked for the high court editing and polishing its rulings and opinions, died Monday at his home in Peterborough, N.H. He was 99.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Henry "Pete" Putzel III.

As "reporter of decisions" at the Supreme Court from 1964 to 1979, Henry Putzel Jr. encapsulated opinions and prepared a syllabus of the decisions, often in intricate consultation with the nine justices. He was the 13th person to hold the position since the court's establishment in 1789.

Reporters of decisions are expert grammarians. Although they do not delve into the substance of rulings, they must have an unfailing instinct about when legal citations or quotations may be amiss in a justice's opinion.

"The work of the reporter of decisions is not known to the public but is of great importance to the courts, the legal profession and to the public," Chief Justice Warren Burger said at the time of Mr. Putzel's retirement. "Mr. Putzel has performed the exacting duties of that important office with great distinction and in keeping with the tradition of the 12 men who preceded him in that position."

Mr. Putzel described himself as a guardian against "mod words" that defied their dictionary definition. Members of the court were as susceptible as anyone else to fashionable words that nonetheless contributed to "cheapening the currency of language," he once told the legal scholar Paul Baier.

There have been only 16 reporters of decisions in the past 224 years, and Mr. Putzel was exacting about upholding certain traditions of the job. In addition to a legal pedigree, the reporter needs to be a "word nut," he said. But at his essence, the perfect candidate should be even more than that, Mr. Putzel conceded. "I think he should be a double revolving peripatetic nit-picker."

During his 15-year court tenure, Mr. Putzel edited or co-edited 64 volumes of the United States Reports, bound volumes of the court's opinions.

One change that occurred under his watch was the release of headnotes -- the colloquial three- or four-page summary of an opinion and key legal holdings -- at the moment a ruling was handed down.

The headnotes, which cannot be cited as legal precedent, had formerly been released months after an opinion became public. …