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A Tribute to Judge Edward R. Becker (1933 - 2006)

Thursday, Jun. 01, 2006

Judge Edward R. Becker, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for over thirty-five years, first as a district court and then as an appellate judge, passed away on Friday, May 19. We have lost a great man.

The funeral was a testimony to a life that made a monumental difference. There were so many people in attendance that the two hours set aside for the family to greet mourners was simply not enough. The line snaked through the extremely large Kenneseth Israel synagogue, and into the parking lot. Remarkable, personal eulogies were delivered by Senator Arlen Specter, a close friend of Judge Becker's since they attended the University of Pennsylvania together; by Chief Judge Anthony Scirica, Justice Samuel Alito, and Judge Midge Rendell, Judge Becker's colleagues on the Third Circuit; and by Stephen Harmelin, managing director of Dilworth Paxson. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and David Souter and Gov. Ed Rendell were also in attendance, as were many family members, and countless judges, law clerks, prominent lawyers, and admirers. I clerked for the Judge from 1988 to 1989, and was deeply honored to be one of the pallbearers.

During his life, those who knew Judge (or "Eddie," as his wife and friends fondly called him) Becker knew that he was a force beyond human proportion. This man never stopped working. Every former clerk can tell you that he read every brief in the assigned cases each session, and that, more often than not, the pages were crinkled from water damage suffered while the Judge was bathing. Invariably, he had reading tucked somewhere in his jacket, and a folded piece of legal paper in his shirt pocket, on which he scribbled his "to-do" list on a rolling basis.

At the same time, he was absolutely devoted to his family. More often than not, his wife, Flora - who is a legal force as well, most recently serving as a Philadelphia juvenile court judge - would come to chambers for lunch, and they were constantly in touch. One of the most moving moments during his funeral was when his son, Chip, said that his father had moved on from the study of philosophy at Penn, because, in the Judge's words, he had "found the meaning of life" in Flora.

During the years before I clerked, he was known to run up and down the field while one of his children (John, now a teacher; Chip, a Philadelphia lawyer; and Susan, a lawyer with the Philadelphia U.S. Attorney's Office) played, with the ever-present briefs in hand, and clerks jogging alongside. My year, we took many a brisk walk from the courthouse to JFK Boulevard, where his mother lived, so that he could check on her. One case would be discussed in each direction. (In any other chambers, you might suspect the Judge was on a fitness kick; in the Becker chambers, he was just making sure no precious minute was wasted.)

Let there be no mistake, though -- Judge Becker was no slave to his work. It was a passion for him. He was the Judge who wrote lengthy, scholarly, and important opinions in major cases, which others, including the Supreme Court, treated with deep respect. Yet, he also always found the time to read all of the other judges' opinions in the circuit. His comments ranged from deeply substantive to careful matters of detail.

And Judge Becker's work for the public good hardly ended with his Article III duties. He took on so many causes - including making sense of the Sentencing Guidelines, improving the timing of law clerk hiring, getting the Magna Carta to Philadelphia, moving the Liberty Bell and then keeping it accessible, and reforming the asbestos litigation system - I'm certain that no one (except perhaps his devoted and extremely talented secretary of 25 years, Trish Kowalski) will ever know all that he did for the country. You always knew that a cause was being born when he would start talking about a new "goddam outrage!"

Nor was he a bore. He was the most remarkable piano player, with a songbook in his head of literally thousands of songs, and the ability to play whatever he heard by ear. When I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the piano player for Chief Justice William Rehnquist's annual all-Court sing-along was not available. I mentioned that Judge Becker was the best piano player I ever met, and he played for the sing-along every year after that until his health failed him.

Judge Becker, though, was so much more than the sum of these sterling qualities. In an era when there is such an alarming increase in cheating, when industry titans are being convicted for criminal financial cover-ups, and when religious organizations have been found to harbor pedophile clergy, Judge Becker was a man of enormous integrity.

The realist theory of the law -- where judges' opinions are determined by what the judge had for breakfast or his political bent -- cannot explain Judge Becker, who toiled to "get it right," regardless of how he felt personally about the outcome of a case. At the beginning of each clerkship, he told his clerks there would be "zero deference" to him. On every case, he charged us to come up with our best theory, whether the case was primarily assigned to us or not, and the chambers battled over every major opinion. It was the best training a young lawyer could receive, and it meant that he heard (and debated) every side before he reached his final decision. Litigators arguing cases before him were also treated to his zero tolerance for the red light at oral argument, which he treated like a malfunctioning stop light that required an override in the interest of greater knowledge and better justice.

The trappings of success meant absolutely nothing to Judge Becker. He was fiercely proud of his written opinions (for good reason), but he lived in the house in the Frankford section of Philadelphia where he was born, took the Frankford El to work everyday (regulars could always identify the guy with the stack of reading with him), and, with Flora, raised his children to be the responsible, kind, and good people that they are today. He loved Philadelphia with a civic passion, and especially the Sixers. When he wanted a clerk to come into his office from their part of the chambers, he would yell, "Yo!," right out of "Rocky." The first time I heard it, I froze at my desk, thinking that he could not have just yelled, "Yo, Marci," from his office, through the secretaries' offices, and into ours. Of course, by the time it dawned on me I'd better get up and go in there, he had made two calls in the meantime.

I took my children to his funeral, not only because he played such an important role in my life, but also because I wanted them to hear what is said publicly about a great man at the end of his life. There has never been an overabundant supply of those who changed the world for the better. This generation was blessed with Judge Becker. There will never be a replacement, but it is up to future generations to strive to live up to the Becker standard.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005). Her email address is

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