by Walter Fox
Louis Heilprin Pollak, 89, a U.S. District Judge who, as a young lawyer, played a key role in litigation leading to school desegregation, died May 8 of congestive heart failure at his home in Mt. Airy.
Judge Pollak, who also had been dean of the law schools at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, was widely known for his fairness and humanity on the bench. Judge Guido Calabresi, a former student who succeeded him as dean of Yale’s Law School, said Judge Pollak had “that quality of nuance and subtlety that sees everything from every point of view.”
Judge Pollak graduated from Harvard College and, after serving in the Army during World War II, received his law degree from Yale University, where he was editor of the law review.
He began his legal career as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge from 1949 to 1951. Here he became close friends with William Coleman, the former U.S. Transportation Secretary, who was also serving a clerkship at the court.
The friendship continued when the two men joined the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison. Practicing commercial law during the day, they spent their evenings in Harlem developing legal strategies at the offices of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
They assisted civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice, in writing briefs and preparing oral arguments for the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.
Judge Pollak later would become a board member and vice president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Before becoming a judge, he was well known for civil-rights and civil-liberties law, which became a focus of his teaching and scholarly interests.
He served as dean of Yale Law School from 1965 to 1970, and as dean of Penn’s law school from 1975 until he was appointed to the federal bench in Philadelphia in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. He was named a senior judge in 1991. During his time on the bench, he presided over a wide variety of cases and issues.
Judge Legrome Davis, of Mt. Airy, a friend and a colleague of Judge Pollak on the Eastern District bench, called the judge “one of the most special people I’ve been fortunate to meet.”
“He had extraordinary human compassion and was always looking for the good and the positive,” Davis said. “I never heard him utter a cross word.”
Davis said Judge Pollak saw the law “as a tool to affect the larger good,” adding that his friend “was so unassuming that you’d never suspect he was the legal giant that, in fact, he was.”
John E. Savoth, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, said Judge Pollak “had a tremendous influence on the quality of justice in the Eastern District.”
“He distinguished himself in several legal careers – as a judge, a lawyer, a law-school professor and dean,” Savoth said, “but most of all, he was beloved by lawyers and judges alike for his brilliance, independence and fairness, as well as his graciousness.”
Raised in Manhattan, Judge Pollak was the son of Walter Pollak, a prominent civil rights lawyer who had helped to defend nine black men charged with rape in the notorious Scottsboro Boys case.
Fond of poetry, Judge Pollak will be remembered locally at Project Learn School in Mt. Airy where he read “Casey at the Bat” to assembled students, staff and grandparents during a Grandparents’ Day program at the school attended by three of his grandchildren.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, the former Katherine Weiss; daughters Nancy, Elizabeth, Susan, Sally and Deborah, and several grandchildren.