The only surprise at the April dedication of the 2008 NYU Annual Survey of American Law to Anthony Amsterdam was, as the journal’s Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Geffen noted, that the publication hadn’t done it years ago.
Current and former students and accomplished colleagues gathered to pay homage to Amsterdam’s legend—as a leading law professor, advocate and litigator for capital defense and other civil rights causes. But more so, their tributes honored the man with intimate portraits of a teacher, a friend and an extraordinary human being.
Professor of Clinical Law Bryan Stevenson had only the highest praise for his colleague and mentor, who has taught at NYU since 1981. “I don’t believe there’s any lawyer, any litigator who has had a more profound influence on social justice in this country in the last 40 years,” he said, adding, “He is a very uncommon person.”
Nearly everyone mentioned Amsterdam’s typical practice of sending emails in the wee hours of the morning. Seemingly apocryphal stories of legal brilliance—like that cheeky feat of citing a Supreme Court case, volume and page number included, before a skeptical judge, or dictating perfect legal briefs via the phone—were confirmed true. And try as they might to each say something different about the man, all were in awe of his dedication and caring.
David Kendall, known for representing President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, began his career working with Amsterdam at the NAACP Legal Defense andEducation Fund (LDF) during the mid-1960s. He shared a poem Amsterdam had once included in correspondence as a testament to his wit and playfulness. Former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman, who won a 2005 victory in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Supreme Court ruled the execution of juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment, confessed that an additional reward for the privilege of defending death-row inmates is having close access to Amsterdam.
Even though all spoke from vastly divergent places in their careers—from law student to senior partner—all were grateful for Amsterdam’s wisdom.
“There’s no one in this business that I know of…that works harder than Tony does,” said George Kendall, another LDF veteran. “He leads, and teaches by example.”
Underscoring Kendall’s point were tributes from Amsterdam’s former student Dimitri Dubé ’05, now a clerk to Judge Theodore McKee of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and a current one, Robyn Mar ’08. As the most recent beneficiaries of Amsterdam’s teaching, Dubé and Mar described the same man his peers had—affirmation of the respect with which Amsterdam treats everyone, regardless of their age or career status.
When the honoree finally accepted his award, he tried to dismiss the kind words. In fact, his short speech exemplified all of the qualities attributed to him—modesty, humor, intelligence and sensitivity. “It’s staggering to see so many friends and so many good people so deluded,” he said, but as the attendees stood to applaud him, Amsterdam couldn’t hide the fact that he was truly grateful and deeply moved.
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