Ralph Spritzer, who served as chief deputy in the Office of the Solicitor General of the United States from 1962-68, and who Supreme Court Justice William Brennan called “the finest advocate to argue before our Court in my years here,” died Sunday, Jan. 16. He was 93. Donations in his memory may be made to the College of Law at law.asu.edu/give.
Spritzer, who joined the faculty at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in 1986, also taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1968-1986, focusing on criminal procedure, antitrust, regulated industries and litigation.
“Ralph had an extraordinary life and successfully navigated at least three full careers,” said Dean Paul Schiff Berman of the College of Law, “first, as one of the preeminent appellate and Supreme Court litigators of all time; second, as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; and third, even after his ‘retirement’ from Penn Law, he went on to what was essentially another career here at the College of Law, spanning many years of service and friendship.
“He was sharp as a tack and lucid until the very end, and all who had a chance to hear him talk about legal matters came away greatly enriched.”
Spritzer skipped several years of school and started high school at 11, graduating at 15 and going directly to Columbia University, then to Columbia’s School of Law. Even after taking off time for a thyroid operation, he graduated from law school at 23.
He met his wife, Lorraine, a journalist on Congressional Quarterly, through a mutual acquaintance, and they remained devoted until her death 2½ years ago. She became an accomplished Equity actress, was well-traveled, and later in life wrote two political biographies about southern women, Grace Towns Hamilton and the Politics of Southern Change, and The Belle of Ashby Street. And she was adventurous, even going whitewater rafting in her ‘70s.
Spritzer’s years in Washington, D.C., gave him a life of historical experiences. He told of seeing President Kennedy at the White House the night before Kennedy went to Dallas in November 1963, and of listening to President Lyndon Baines Johnson complain about the Vietnam War after accompanying Thurgood Marshall into the Oval Office after Marshall’s swearing in to the U.S. Supreme Court. Spritzer decided to leave in anticipation of Nixon’s election, telling his family that he didn’t want to work for Nixon’s administration.
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, on Kennedy’s last day in office, wrote Spritzer a letter that concludes, “I am proud to have served with you—and I am grateful for your friendship.”
Spritzer also was general counsel to the Federal Power Commission (1961-62), Assistant to the Solicitor General (1953-61), an attorney in the Antitrust Division (1950-53) and the Office of Alien Property (1946-50) at the U.S. Department of Justice, and served from 1941-46 in the Judge Advocate General’s Department for the U.S. Army. He was general counsel to the American Association of University Professors (1982-83), consultant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, (1982-83), adjunct professor of law at George Washington University Law School (1966-68) and visiting professor of law at Notre Dame University (Summer, 1972).
Paul Bender, Dean Emeritus of the College of Law, describes Spritzer as the best friend he has had in his life, other than his wife. They met when Spritzer hired Bender, then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to work for the summer in the Solicitor General’s Office. Bender worked two summers, then two years for Spritzer. When Spritzer decided to leave Washington, D.C., Bender advocated for his hiring at Penn Law and the year Bender came to ASU, Spritzer came as a visiting professor, a move that was a happy coincidence.
“He was an extremely cultured, well-read person, up on current events, interested in the world,” Bender said.
Bender said that when Spritzer came back from World War II, he started working in the Solicitor Generals Office at the Justice Department, and eventually worked his way up to run the entire office.
“He kept getting promoted because of how good he was,” Bender said. “Most people are hired from outside, because they’re the first in their class at Harvard. Ralph didn’t have that kind of background, he succeeded because he was so good.”
Bender said Spritzer, as the senior attorney in the Solicitor General’s Office, was “totally competent, calm, easy to talk to, accessible.
“He was the best oral advocate I have ever heard or seen anywhere,” Bender said. “He was more skilled than anyone else in the ability to persuade a court. He was so reasonable, so clear, not contentious, and the way he tells it to you is so easy to understand. There were no histrionics, just the calmest, clearest, most common-sense argument you will hear.”
Bender said that most advocates try to prove to the court that they are right, but Spritzer would approach it from the idea of reasonableness, that his point made the most sense, that it was something the judges ought to want to do.”
His writing skills were also amazing, Bender said.
“He was the greatest editor,” Bender said. “Ralph could take a draft of a brief and improve it by making the smallest number of changes. He’d say, ‘If you change that sentence, if you put this here instead of there,’ and the brief would go from disorganized to organized. It would be magically transformed.”
Spritzer was a world-class bridge player, who played weekly all his life, and one of his bridge hands was the subject of a New York Times column.
“A couple of times in Washington, he took me to some bridge tournaments,” Bender said. “On the way back to the office, he would replay the game, and he remembered every card in every hand, and would analyze the play, ‘He shouldn’t have played that, he should have played this.
“When he played, he had the ability to figure out what everybody had in their hand and the best strategy. He saw the hands. It was part of his personality. It blended with the whole of him, that ability to think clearly in very stressful situations, to figure out what was going on and what to do in light of the situation.”
Bender said the analytical skill was also apparent when Spritzer took him to the horse track in Maryland one weekend.
“We were walking down the aisle, and all these people kept coming up and saying, ‘Ralph, who do you have in the third race?’ ” Bender said. “They had no idea this guy was the world’s greatest advocate, they just knew he was a great picker of horses. He was good at figuring out the odds. He loved the science of trying to pick winners, in horses and sports. He thought a game was more interesting if you had a bet on it.”
At 51, Spritzer had a heart attack, and was told by his doctor that swimming would be a good exercise. He continued to swim regularly all his life.
After leaving the Solicitor General’s Office, Spritzer continued to argue cases before the Supreme Court. His last was that of Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted for the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. MacDonald, an Army officer, medical doctor and practicing physician, claimed that a group of Charles Manson-type hippies committed the crimes. Spritzer believed that MacDonald had not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and deserved a new trial, but lost the effort to overturn the conviction.
George Schatzki, Professor Emeritus at the ASU College of Law, met Spritzer when Schatzki was a visiting professor at Penn.
“We would talk about current events, the law, the school, the Supreme Court, music, our families and books,” Schatzki said. “He was a more avid and serious reader than I was, and I was more avidly interested in music than he was.”
Schatzki said that Spritzer had more of a lecture-style of teaching, with less dialogue than typical law professors.
“He was extraordinarily good at it,” Schatzki said. “Every lecture he gave was a law review article in the making. He was good with words as well as thoughts, and the students would just be sucked into the subject. They knew they were learning at the feet of an extraordinary master.”
Alan Matheson, Dean Emeritus of the College of Law, said hiring Spritzer was the best decision he made as dean.
“When I hired him, the university required letters of recommendation from persons who knew him,” Matheson said. “I asked Ralph for some names, though I was embarrassed to do so because he was a distinguished teacher and scholar. He submitted a list, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.
“When I sent a letter to the Justice asking for a reference, he replied in a letter dated February 1985, ‘I regard Ralph Spritzer as the finest advocate to argue before our court in my years here. Unfortunately, he has argued only one or two cases since leaving the Solicitor General’s staff. I recall that all of us looked forward with considerable pleasure and anticipation when he appeared for the Solicitor General. He was absolutely superb in every case.’
“What a tribute,” Matheson said. “I framed the letter and gave it to Ralph.”
It hung in his office until this week, even though some thought the praise made Spritzer a little uncomfortable.
Another Supreme Court justice, Felix Frankfurter, sent a note to the Solicitor General once saying, “Is it unjudicial for me to feel that you ought to increase Spritzer’s salary – no matter what he gets?”
“Ralph Spritzer was a gentleman, an amazingly intelligent human being, and a beloved teacher,” Matheson said. “We shall miss him terribly.”
Famed attorney and jurist Richard Posner, currently a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, upon hearing of Spritzer’s death, wrote that he “made it to a great age.
“I admired him greatly, and learned much from him in my two years in the Solicitor General’s office,” Posner wrote. “He was a fine person, as well as a lawyer of great ability and distinction.”
Spritzer, who worked half time at the College of Law, chose to teach a half load both semesters rather than only one semester.
“He liked to keep busy,” Bender said. “He loved teaching. His mood would elevate when the semester started. I walked by his office last semester, and there he was, with a pad and paper, preparing for class.”
Bender worked on cases with Spritzer throughout his career, with Spritzer asking Bender to help with Buckley v. Valeo, the landmark case involving the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and Bender asking Spritzer to help him with a brief representing the ASU College of Law in Grutter v. Bollinger, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. Spritzer reviewed briefs that Bender was writing for the case about the private-school tuition tax-credit in Arizona, which went before the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2010.
Bender also marveled at Spritzer’s concentration and direct action.
“When Ralph had something to do, he’d do it,” Bender said. “I never knew anyone as directed. He wouldn’t wait a week and stew about it. He couldn’t understand how people could procrastinate.”
Jon Rose, Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar at the College of Law, met Spritzer in the mid-60s, when Rose worked in the antitrust office of the Justice Department and Spritzer, who had worked in antitrust, was the Deputy Solicitor General. Later, when Spritzer was at Penn, Rose’s son was on the football team, and Rose and Spritzer would attend football games together. And when Spritzer came to ASU, their families spent time together, and they ate lunch together nearly every day in the faculty lounge.
“He was very eloquent,” Rose said. “He had this commanding presence and voice. He talked like some people’s polished writing.
“He was a wonderful raconteur, and when he came to dinner, I would prompt him to tell stories, which my kids loved to hear,” Rose said. “He would talk about growing up in Brooklyn, going to private schools, summer camps and family outings.”
Spritzer would tell about when he saw the first game of the legendary 1927 World Series, with what most historians believe was the best baseball team in history, the 1927 New York Yankees. The Yankees had a line-up known as “Murderer’s Row,” with Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel and Lou Gehrig.
Spritzer was the co-author of the recent second edition of Introduction to Legal Method and Process: Cases and Materials with College of Law Professor Michael Berch and Rebecca White Berch, Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
“He was a superb editor,” Berch said. “He was on time, efficient, meticulous, he had great ideas and analysis. I couldn’t think of a better co-author.”
Spritzer, who was “old-school” and described as going to the grave without ever touching a computer, used to write longhand on legal pads.
“I never saw cross outs,” Berch said. “He wrote beautifully.”
Berch and Spritzer coached the College’s moot court teams for more than 10 years, and traveled to many regional competitions and a national competition in New York.
“He was a terrific advocate,” Berch said. “He had a feel for that area. He knew how to argue. He was always respectful of the students. They knew they were learning from a top-flight advocate.”
But he was a terrible driver.
“I wouldn’t get into the car with him,” Berch said, laughing. “Once I ran into him eating lunch at Wong’s on Baseline Road. After we finished, he took off across the road without looking either left or right. There were horns blaring, tires squealing, brakes screeching. It was awful.”
James Weinstein, Amelia Lewis Professor of Constitutional Law at the College of Law, said he met Spritzer when Weinstein was a first-year law student at Penn, and was in Spritzer’s criminal procedure class.
“We had been discussing an important Supreme Court case in class,” Weinstein said. “I went up to ask him some questions after class, and it came out that he had argued that case before the Court. I learned later that he argued several of the key cases we studied that semester. I was amazed at how accomplished and incredibly modest a man Professor Spritzer was.”
Weinstein remembered Spritzer calling on a friend of Weinstein’s in class (who is now also a law professor), and when the student plead that he was unprepared because he had listened instead to the Boston Red Sox/Cincinnati Reds World Series game the night before, Spritzer graciously accepted the plea. Weinstein later took an antitrust class from Spritzer, which Weinstein remembers as one of the best courses he had in law school.
When Weinstein came to the College of Law in 1986 and was married in 1989, the Spritzers became “local parents” for the young couple. “They just took us under their wing,” Weinstein said.
For many years, Weinstein and his wife, Cynthia Stonnington, would visit the Spritzers every summer in Berkeley, and while Lorraine and Cynthia hiked, Spritzer would share stories of the war and his career with Weinstein.
One summer, Spritzer helped Weinstein prepare for a free speech case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and then came to watch the argument.
“Afterward, I said, ‘Well, unlike you, Ralph, I’m not the most eloquent speaker in the world,’” Weinstein said. “Ralph kindly responded, ‘You were fine. Court’s don’t care how pretty you sound. You were persuasive and that’s what matters.’ ”
Carolyn Blankenship, an intellectual property lawyer at Thomson Reuters and was a student of Spritzer’s at the College of Law, loved listening to Spritzer talk.
“He had a remarkable command of the English language,” Blankenship said. “He was eloquent yet concise. His voice, even at its softest, could carry across the rotunda at ASU, it was so deep and clear. In a matter of moments, he would size up a situation, boil it down to its component parts and come to a principled conclusion.
“He was also irresistibly charming and made a hell of a cocktail,” Blankenship said. “They just don’t make people like Ralph anymore – I count myself unspeakably lucky to have known him.”
Jeffrie Murphy, Regents’ Professor of Law, Philosophy & Religious Studies at the College of Law, shared a love of books with Spritzer, and they frequently met for lunch to discuss their latest finds. Often the reading would trigger memories of Spritzer’s own experiences, for example, Evelyn Waugh, would spur a discussion of Spritzer’s experiences in Germany during World War II.
One of many stories Spritzer told was, while in Germany with the Judge Advocate General Corps, described coming upon soldiers warming disembodied hands over a fire. When he asked what they were doing, they told him they were thawing them in order to get fingerprints for identification.
Recently, Murphy recommended Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The title stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong,” and the book examines the life of Sir Edward Feathers, a barrister in his 90s looking back on his life and lucrative career in Asia.
“He was interested in the quality of the writing,” Murphy said.
Ira Ellman, Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar at the College of Law, called Spritzer “a wise head,” with whom Ellman would discuss family issues, law briefs and current affairs.
Ellman said Spritzer could put an end to circuitous faculty meetings when, after remaining very quiet, he would wade in, with his deep voice, and say something that completely settled the matter.
“It was another example of his effectiveness as an advocate,” Ellman said. “He would strip away everything but the central points, and his focus would be on that.”
A few years ago, Ellman and Bender interviewed and taped Spritzer speaking about his life, which was so fascinating they only got through about half of it before having to stop. They meant to meet again to finish, but were never able to schedule the second session.
“He had a great generosity of spirit,” Ellman said. “That was a common theme with Ralph and the way he dealt with people.”
Spritzer is survived by daughter Pam, a writer and editor, and granddaughter Ade, 12, and his son Ron, an administrative judge for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Ron’s wife, Sherri, and their daughter’s Kathleen, 15, and Rebecca, 12.
Ron remembered going several times with his mother and sister to hear Ralph argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I remember more about what the cases were about than how he argued them,” Ron said. “One case was Costello v. United States, about Frank Costello, a big-time New York gangster. I was six years old at the time the case was argued. That seems very young to have attended a Supreme Court argument, but I do recall being there.”
The issue was whether Costello’s citizenship should be revoked because, although he stated during his naturalization proceedings that his occupation was “real estate,” his actual occupation was bootlegging. Costello was represented in the Supreme Court by Edward Bennett Williams, who for many years was one of the nation’s leading criminal defense lawyers. Nevertheless, Ralph won the case for the government.
Ron also remembered Ralph talking about one weekend when the family was out of town and Ralph took the dog into the Justice Department when he went in to work.
“I guess she got nervous going up the elevator and did her business in front of J. Edgar Hoover’s office,” Ron said. “I think he felt a little satisfaction about it because he was no fan of J. Edgar Hoover.”
Ron, who attended law school at Penn while Ralph was teaching there, said Ralph never pushed him to go into law, and they made sure he never ended up in one of Ralph’s classes.
Ron recalled his father as unflappable, with an extraordinary equanimity.
“He was not easily ruffled,” Ron said. “He, like me, was much more an appellate type than a trial type. He enjoyed research, writing, thinking issues through, more than the type-A, hard-driving, aggressive personality that a trial attorney often is.”
Ron specialized in environmental law and worked at the Justice Department.
“I would sometimes send him petitions or briefs that we were taking to the Supreme Court,” Ron said.
“He was kind, gentle, patient,” Pam said. “He was playful and had a profoundly cheerful disposition. Many things were left unsaid, but were understood. The most explicitly he ever talked about our relationship was an eloquent, moving toast he gave at my wedding. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was worth getting married just to hear them.”
As a girl, Pam played chess and cards with Ralph, and later they played Scrabble, and did the New York Times crossword puzzle together.
“Since my mother died 2 ½ years ago, I called him nightly,” Pam said. “He was often better informed about the events of the day than I was.”
Pam’s daughter, Ade, 12, adored her grandfather, and had a running joke about Timon, a giant stuffed polar bear.
“He would also ask how Timon was, and she would tell him Timon sent his love,” Pam said.
“He loved women, particularly brainy women, though he appreciated beauty as much as any man,” she said. “At the same time, he was an incredibly dutiful and steadfast husband for almost 60 years.”
Ralph’s illness was sudden, stunning Pam with the rapidity of its effects. When she visited him around Christmas, he said he was tired, and she urged him to see his doctor.
“We were going out to eat and to the gym,” she said. “He was tired, but still himself. I left on Dec. 30. On Jan. 5, he had his assistant send an e-mail to a relative saying ‘I do have some of the complaints that go with ancient age but happily, they are not severe.’ ”
But a week later, after running tests, his doctor discovered a blood disorder and told Ralph there was nothing they could do.
“I spoke to him minutes after the doctor told him,” Pam said. “He sounded shaken, but, as always, he had a measured response. He never showed the slightest fear, was never cranky or complained.
“I remember Paul Bender saying to me once, many years ago, ‘Your father seems to have more inner resources than most people.’ At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it came to mind when I saw how he handled himself at the end – with such grace and composure. He was lying in bed, barely able to open his eyes, and he was talking just as he always did, making jokes.
“He clearly loved teaching or he wouldn’t have done it to his dying day,” Pam said. “Of course, he was also gratified by his work with the Supreme Court. He was deeply fulfilled.”