Walter Gellhorn, Law Authority, Is Dead at 89


Photograph: Walter Gellhorn. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.


Walter Gellhorn of Columbia, one of the nation's leading law authorities, champion of civil rights and pioneer in the modern study of law, died Dec. 9, at his home on Morningside Heights in Manhattan. He was 89.

University Professor Emeritus at Columbia, he began his teaching career at Columbia Law School in the 1930s, and his academic progeny include many of the legal world's outstanding scholars.

Gellhorn, an early and influential thinker in the field of administrative law, was the author of Administrative Law: Cases and Comments, widely used by generations of law students across the nation since publication of the first edition in 1940.

Fourteen Books

In his teachings, numerous law review articles and 14 books he either authored or co-authored, Gellhorn seeded the field of administrative law with his insights and stressed the need for governmental responsiveness, fairness and administrative efficiency.

In 1966 he wrote When Americans Complain, which explored means by which citizens might challenge official actions and failures to act.

A companion volume, Ombudsmen and Others, appraised the effectiveness of grievance procedures other countries had developed for dealing with citizens' complaints.

He was also an eloquent defender of civil rights and free speech. His 1950 book Security, Loyalty, and Science was a forceful denunciation of McCarthyism. His Individual Freedom and Governmental Restraints (1956), American Rights: The Constitution in Action (1960) and The Freedom to Read (with others, 1961) were other works that bore on public policies he regarded as threatening.

With R. Kent Greenawalt, then Columbia Law School's Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence and now University Professor, he wrote The Sectarian College and the Public Purse in 1970.

For 25 years, beginning in 1944, he was a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union; he served also as a director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Throughout his long association with Columbia beginning in 1933, Gellhorn wrote and spoke widely, taught at major universities in England, Japan and elsewhere, and served as executive director of The China Center for American Law Study in the mid-1980s.

On Campus 60 Years

Although he retired from active teaching in 1975, Gellhorn remained a constant and vital academic presence on campus more than 60 years after his teaching career began.

He maintained lecture appearances and associations with various legal and political science organizations.

He was a trustee or trustee emeritus of Amherst College continuously since 1960.

Lance Liebman, Dean of Columbia Law School, said:

"While contributing magnificently to the achievement of law and freedom on several continents, Walter Gellhorn found time and energy to involve himself in every aspect of the work of Columbia Law School during nearly seven decades. No one in the history of American legal education has symbolized the values of a law school as Walter Gellhorn did for Columbia. We will continue to be guided by his example."

Gellhorn received acclaim and awards throughout his career. They include 10 honorary degrees from various universities, and twice the Harvard Law School's coveted Henderson Memorial Prize for scholarly work in administrative law. Gellhorn received it in 1946 for his critical studies of federal administration as director of the Attorney General's Committee on Administrative Procedure and in 1974 for When Americans Complain and Ombudsmen and Others.

Walter Gellhorn was born in St. Louis on September 18, 1906. He was awarded the A.B. from Amherst in 1927 and earned his law degree in 1931 from Columbia, where he was an editor of the Columbia Law Review.

Following his graduation from law school he clerked from 1931 to 1932 for then Associate Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, a former Columbia law professor and dean who later became Chief Justice of the United States.

In 1933 he returned to Columbia as assistant professor of law, specializing in teaching legislation and administrative law.

Highest Rank

In 1937 he also became a member of the political science faculty. In 1938 he was appointed associate professor of law, became professor in 1945, was named Betts Professor of Law in 1957 and University Professor (Columbia's highest academic rank) in 1973.

Upon his retirement in 1975 he was designated University Professor Emeritus. In 1993 an endowed professorship, bearing his name, was created in his honor.

Gellhorn served as an attorney in the office of the Solicitor General of the Unites States from 1932 to 1933. He was regional attorney of the then newly created Social Security system from 1936 to 1938, regional attorney of the Office of Price Administration from 1942 to 1943, and vice chairman and chairman of the National War Labor Board, Region II, from 1944 to 1946.

By triennial appointments by the President of the United States he was a Councillor of the Administrative Conference of the United States continuously since its inception in 1968.

During many decades, continuing well into the 1990s, he mediated or arbitrated a number of major labor disputes. In 1963 he arbitrated a controversy involving the nuclear-powered vessel Savannah, the U.S. government's expensive showpiece of naval construction. This was one of many conflicts between ship operators and maritime unions submitted to him for decision.

In 1967 Gellhorn was tapped by New York City Mayor John Lindsay to patch differences between the Board of Education and the United Federation of Teachers.

In later years, controversies concerning police officers, firefighters, school teachers, actors, social service workers, physicians and others came before him for decision. In 1980, as chairman of a state mediation panel, he helped resolve a transit strike that had crippled New York City.

A Mediator

A profile in The New York Times Apr. 2, 1980, quoted Gellhorn as saying:

"There are very few advantages to becoming an antique, but I suspect that one of them is that people who didn't think much of you now take you seriously." Noted The Times: "At the age of 73, he tends to be regarded as a giant in the field of law, and he is hardly the sort of man others would think little of."

Honors bestowed on him include the Goldsmith award in 1951, the Hillman Award in 1957, the Columbia Law Alumni Medal for excellence in 1971, the Learned Hand Medal in 1979, and the American Bar Foundation's Award in 1988 for "outstanding research in law and government."

He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the National Academy of Public Administration and served terms as president of the Association of American Law Schools and vice president of the American Philosophical Society.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Kitty; two daughters, Gay of Washington, and Ellis of Manhattan; a sister, Martha of London; a brother, Alfred, of Durham, N.Y., and three grandchildren.


Columbia University Record -- January 19, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 13