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Clyde W. Summers, Leading Labor Law Scholar, Dies at 91

November 08, 2010

One of the greatest labor law scholars of his generation, Professor Summers was passionate about the rights of employees in the workplace.
Professor Clyde Summers in 2002


Clyde W. Summers, Jefferson B. Fordham professor of law emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and one of the greatest labor law scholars of his generation, died Oct. 30 after a long illness. He was 91.
Known as a prophet and the senior partner of the labor law professoriate, Summers “had no peer in influencing such a large number of significant areas within the field,” Robert Gorman, Kenneth W. Gemmill professor of law emeritus, wrote in a 1990 law review article. Summers played a pre-eminent role in major areas of labor and employment law including individual worker rights, union democracy, unjust discharge, and the rights of public employees and non-union employees. He was also a pioneer in international and comparative labor law.
Summers “brought to his life as a labor law teacher a passionate belief that the benefit to human flourishing that had accompanied the gradual expansion of democracy in the political arena should be brought into the world of work as well,” said Howard Lesnick, Jefferson B. Fordham professor of law. Summers’ concern with the rights of the individual worker became the dominant focus of his research and writing and spurred him to put his scholarly ideas into practice through public policy activism and movement building.
“Clyde used to say that the life of the lawyer should be something more than cases and precedent – it should be about what is good, what is just, what is kind,” recalled Penn Law Dean Michael Fitts. “He couldn’t have described his own career better. Clyde’s life in the law – his teaching of generations of lawyers, his brilliant scholarship, and his passionate advocacy for the rights of workers – truly leaves the world a more just place.”
In 63 years as a teacher and scholar, Summers shared his expertise in domestic and comparative labor law with over 9,000 students and colleagues. He taught more than 20 different courses, edited five casebooks, published more than 125 law review articles, and was the founding editor of the Comparative Labor Law Journal.
“Clyde was simply remarkable,” Professor Gorman said in a telephone interview. “His writings were brilliant, readable and passionate. He was consistently ahead of his time in identifying issues that almost no one could foresee would become pervasive and important.”
Summers’ seminal 1976 article advocating statutory protection against unjust dismissal provided the model for the Commission of Uniform Sate Laws’ Model Employment Termination Act. His groundbreaking work in the 1950s on unions’ relations with their members caught the attention of then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who called upon Summers to draft what would become the Landrum Griffin Act, the 1959 law designed to protect and promote democratic process in unions.
Summers joined the Penn Law faculty in 1975 after teaching at Yale from 1957-1975, the University of Buffalo from 1949-1956, and the University of Toledo from 1942-1949. He formally retired from Penn Law in 1989 but continued teaching full-time until he suffered a stroke in 2005. He wrote in his faculty profile in 2002, “I continue teaching because I enjoy teaching law more than anything else I might do; it has been my life.”
In addition to his scholarly work, Summers was an arbitrator in over 1,000 cases over 50 years, was the umpire for the anthracite coal industry for 20 years, and served as an expert witness and advisor to courts and government agencies for decades. Among numerous awards, he held Ford, Fulbright, German Marshall, Guggenheim, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships.
The youngest son of a Midwestern farmer, Summers was drawn to labor law from his early experiences growing up during the Depression and working to pay for college tuition under “atrocious” conditions in a restaurant, the liberal views of his Methodist church, and the rising wave of union activism of the day.
Summers had planned to become a preacher before he found his calling in the law. Nevertheless, his religious convictions influenced the trajectory of his legal career; after receiving his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Illinois, Summers was denied admission to the Illinois bar in 1943 because he had been a conscientious objector to World War II. He appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court but lost in a five-four vote. Though he had already begun teaching in 1942 and was eventually admitted to the New York bar in 1951, Summers credited his inability to practice law early in his career with his decision to remain a law professor. 
Despite the loss at the Supreme Court, the 26-year-old Summers left an impression on Justice Hugo Black, who wrote in his dissent that Summers “is honest, moral, and intelligent . . . His ideals of what a lawyer should be indicate . . . that he would strive to make the legal system a more effective instrument of justice.”
The record before Justice Black included Summers’ testimony to the Illinois bar authorities. In a statement that would foresee his career, Summers had said, “I think the law has a place to see to it that every man has a chance to eat and a chance to live equally.”

Summers is survived by his wife, Evelyn, sons Mark and Craig, daughters Erica and Lisa, a sister Majel Drake, and eight grandchildren. Donations may be made to the Peggy Browning Fund, which provides fellowships for law students dedicated to improving the lives of workers, at 1525 Walnut St., Philadelphia 19102 or to the Association for Union Democracy, 104 Montgomery St., Brooklyn, NY, 11225.


New York Times: Clyde W. Summers, Advocate of Labor Union Democracy

Philadelphia Inquirer:  Clyde Summers, Expert on Law and Labor

Washington PostSan Francisco Examiner: Clyde W. Summers Dies, Legal Scholar Was Influential Advocate of Union Democracy

Memorial Service: A service to honor and remember Professor Summers will be held at the Law School's Levy Conference Center on Saturday, April 16, at 2pm.