Emeritus Professor Ralph Spritzer, Leading Supreme Court Litigator, Dies at 93
January 26, 2011
Ralph Spritzer, emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a leading appellate advocate who argued more than 60 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, died on January 16. He was 93.
“Ralph epitomized the very best of the legal profession,” Penn Law Dean Michael A. Fitts said. “He was a gifted teacher, a generous mentor to generations of law students, and a superb lawyer renowned for his elegant, quietly persuasive presentation style. He will be greatly missed.”
Spritzer joined the Penn Law faculty in 1968 and retired in 1986. He taught courses including civil procedure and antitrust, served as faculty advisor to the Keedy Cup Competition, oversaw applications for judicial clerkships, and directed students in the Indigent Prisoner Litigation Program. When Spritzer retired, his students wrote in a tribute that the most important thing he showed them was that “it is possible to be, simultaneously, a thoughtful and kind person and an effective lawyer and litigator.”
Before he became a law professor, Spritzer had a distinguished career in government service. From 1962 through 1968, he served as the Solicitor General’s Office first assistant, the equivalent of chief of staff. He 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.
Spritzer’s career before the Supreme Court began in 1951, when he argued three cases as an attorney in the Alien Property Division of the Justice Department. From the time he joined the Solicitor General’s Office in 1952 until his departure for the Federal Power Commission in 1961, he appeared before the Supreme Court 24 times in a wide variety of cases. In all but five instances, he prevailed. When he returned to the Office as first assistant from 1962-68, he made another 17 Supreme Court appearances, involving 21 cases. In all but one instance, he prevailed. He continued arguing before the Supreme Court even after he left the Solicitor General’s Office to become a law professor.
Spritzer became well known for a style of advocacy that appeared more like teaching than arguing and that made the result he advocated seem commonsensical. An observer noted that at times, he appeared to have almost hypnotized the Court, which frequently permitted him to argue at length without interrupting him with questions that it frequently put to attorneys. Professor Frank Goodman compared Spritzer on appeal to Joe DiMaggio in the outfield: “a performer of matchless grace, making the hard cases look easy and raising the easy ones to the level of art.”
Among the most notable of Spritzer’s Supreme Court advocacy were the widely publicized “sit-in” cases of 1964, which involved convictions under state criminal trespass laws of African American men who had been refused service in restaurants or lunch counters and then remained on the premises after being asked to leave. Convinced that the Court was not prepared to issue a broad ruling, Spritzer argued for reversal of the sit-in convictions on narrow grounds. His advocacy proved effective in three of the four cases and has been credited with helping preserve the momentum of the civil rights movement until Congress could address the public accommodations issue in its 1964 legislation.
Spritzer's exceptional advocacy skills impressed judges and justices, including Justice William Brennan, who described him as "the finest advocate to argue before our Court in my years” on the bench. Justice Frankfurter wrote that Spritzer was the rare attorney who won rather than lost a case. And despite Spritzer’s impressive record of appellate wins, some of the highest praise he received focused on his losses. In a tribute to Spritzer upon his retirement from Penn Law, Judge Oscar Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit wrote, “No advocate can persuade in every case, but the final tribute, and it’s a high one, I pay to Ralph is that, when he did not persuade, he always left the judges deeply troubled.”
Spritzer received his bachelors and law degrees from Columbia University. He co-authored the casebook, Introduction to Legal Method and Process. After his retirement from Penn Law, he moved to Arizona and became a visiting professor at Arizona State University College of Law, where he taught until recently.
Spritzer is survived by his son Ron L’81, an administrative judge for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Ron’s wife Sherri, and their daughters Kathleen, 15, and Rebecca, 12; and by his daughter Pam, a writer and editor, and her daughter Ade, 12. He was predeceased by his wife, Lorraine. Contributions may be made in his memory to the Arizona State University College of Law at law.asu.edu/give.