Press Releases

In Memoriam: Robert M. Kaufman

The New York City Bar Association mourns the passing of Robert M. Kaufman, who served as City Bar President from 1986 – 1988 and was a longtime partner at Proskauer Rose.

He was born in Vienna in 1929, taken to England in 1938 in the kindertransport of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied countries, and then to the United States. After attending Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn College (with a graduate degree in economics) and Brooklyn Law School at night, he got his first job as a lawyer by standing out in the City Bar’s moot court competition, where he was scouted by the head of the New York Office of the Antitrust Division of the DOJ. He next worked for Sen. Jacob Javits of New York, where his duties included liaising with the City Bar’s Federal Legislation Committee, the first City Bar committee on which he would serve.

That committee, which in the early 60s was chaired by Fred N. Fishman and included another future City Bar President, Louis Craco, along with Kaufman, strongly supported the Civil Rights Act pending in Congress at the time. The committee asserted that the law would be constitutional not only under the 14th Amendment but also the Commerce Clause, based on the idea that discrimination in public accommodations burdens and obstructs interstate commerce. On August 28, 1963, the day 250,000 people rallied at the Lincoln Memorial to protest racial discrimination and support passage of the legislation, the Times ran an editorial referencing the committee’s report.

In 1972, the City Bar’s Civil Rights Committee, chaired by Kaufman, joined the Sex and Law Committee to urge adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, calling it “the best means of establishing equality before the law and effecting a comprehensive and constant review of the whole body of legislation which treats men and women differently on the basis of their membership in a sexual class.”

When Judge Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court, there was widespread concern that he lacked respect for many of the court’s important precedents, and that his elevation to the Court could lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Kaufman and Sheila Birnbaum, who chaired the nine-person ad hoc committee on the Bork nomination, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that elevating Bork “would detrimentally affect the rights of individuals and groups that the Supreme Court has recognized and protected, and that access to the courts may be seriously curtailed.” According to Alan Rothstein, the City Bar’s General Counsel at the time, Kaufman never wavered and was exceedingly proud of the position the City Bar took, despite receiving a barrage of criticism. A couple dozen members resigned and 150 signed letters of opposition to the City Bar’s position. At the same time, more than 200 communications supported the City Bar’s position, and that year saw an enormous increase in membership (not necessarily due to the opposition to the Bork nomination). “Bob was undeterred. He was sure we were doing the right thing,” says Rothstein.

Kaufman is remembered as well for his work on access to justice. He focused on the needs of the courts that the average person was likely to encounter – Family Court, Housing Court, Criminal Court and Small Claims Court – visiting them and working with committees to help improve them. And when it became clear that the need for civil legal services was outpacing the supply of pro bono attorneys at organizations like NYLPI and VOLS (which were created by the City Bar), he oversaw the creation of the Community Outreach Law Program (COLP), which would become the City Bar Justice Center.

“My years as President of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, 1986-88, were among my happiest and most rewarding as a lawyer,” Kaufman wrote. His love of the City Bar extended to the House of the Association. For years after he was President, he would take incoming Presidents on his tour of the building, including the back staircases and the clerestory above the library.

The feeling was mutual. In 1995, the City Bar honored Robert M. Kaufman with the Association Medal, just the 14th time it was bestowed since its establishment in 1951.