Gerard Lynch '75 Receives Prestigious Learned Hand Medal

The Federal Bar Council Honored Judge Lynch Earlier This Month at Its Annual Law Day Dinner

New York, May 25, 2016—Gerard E. Lynch ’75, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and the Law School’s Paul J. Kellner Professor of Law, was recently awarded the Federal Bar Council’s Learned Hand Medal for excellence in federal jurisprudence.

The prestigious honor was presented at the organization’s annual Law Day Dinner held May 3 at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.

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Gerard E. Lynch '75 accepts the Learned Hand Medal from Vilia B. Hayes, president of the Federal Bar Council.

“I have been a regular attendee of these Law Day dinners for many years, and I’ve heard many recipients of this award say they were ‘humbled’ to receive it,” Lynch said during his acceptance speech before an audience that included a large Columbia Law School delegation. “Now that I am in their shoes, I understand what they meant. When I see my name attached to a list that includes so many of the judges and legal scholars I have admired throughout my career…I have to ask, what am I doing here?”

Lynch is more than humble: His experience boasts many years as a federal prosecutor, judge, scholar, and professor—positions he has almost always held simultaneously. Lynch joined the Columbia Law School faculty in 1977 as an assistant professor of law, earning a place as a full-time professor in 1986, and receiving the Kellner professorship 10 years later. He has also served as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he would later become chief appellate attorney and chief of the criminal division. In 2000, Lynch was appointed to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Bill Clinton. After nine years in that role, President Barack Obama appointed him to his current seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

“Jerry’s professional accomplishments are self-evident,” said Professor Conrad Johnson, co-director of the Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic, who attended the ceremony along with many other members of the faculty to celebrate Lynch’s accomplishment. “What may be less obvious from his resume is his ability to combine intellect and expertise with a strong sense of the role that the law plays in society. That perspective was on full display in his remarks, during which he reflected on the roots of a well-deserved honor with touching honesty, intelligence, and power.”

In his speech to the Federal Bar Council, Lynch remembered his father, a member of the Army Air Corps during World War II. He credited the war with giving his father the chance to learn a viable trade, the federal government for spending money on infrastructure that created a job for his father, and trade unions that helped his father earn a living wage for most of his career—all factors in creating the opportunities that Lynch benefited from as a child.

He also talked about people who do not always enjoy such advantages, including minority communities and women. “We need to find solutions, if we are to have a society that offers not just a chance for a handful of poor and working-class children to achieve the sort of upward mobility that just knocks some other, more privileged kid, down the ladder a few rungs, but that offers all of our people a chance at a decent life,” he said.

“Every Columbia Law School student and graduate should read the speech Professor Lynch gave when he accepted the prestigious Learned Hand award,” said Professor Brett Dignam, director of the Law School’s Mass Incarceration Clinic. “Undeniably brilliant and outstanding by any metric, Jerry chose to remember and credit the solid moral foundation, values, and unwavering support he was given by his family, education, various federal programs, and luck. Substantive, funny, and touching, his thoughts on race, gender, and privilege were direct, salient, and eloquent. His words provide a standard of success to which we can all aspire.”

Lynch began his legal career as a clerk for two fellow Learned Hand Medal honorees, Judge Wilfred Feinberg ’43 of the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. He has served as counsel to the law firm Howard, Darby & Levin, as well as its successor firms, Howard, Smith & Levin and Covington & Burling, and has also counseled many city, state, and federal commissions and special prosecutors investigating public corruption.

As a professor, Lynch is a recipient of the Law School’s Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching and Columbia University’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. In 2008, he won the Law School’s Lawrence A. Wien Prize for Social Responsibility.

“Every time he speaks, people turn to each other with smiles and nods,” said Law School Professor Mary Marsh Zulack, co-director of the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic. “[They say] ‘this is refreshing. This is what we should be talking about. This person is a fine orator and a brilliant, engaged, and perceptive leader. He should be teaching our youth. He should be adjudicating great and small causes.’ I’ve been re-reading his recent remarks every few days. They are so rich in history and so wise that they anchor me for whatever lies ahead.”

The Federal Bar Council established the Learned Hand Medal in 1962 in honor of the long-serving federal jurist and revered judicial philosopher who was chief judge of the 2nd Circuit. Lynch joins a list of prominent federal leaders to receive the accolade, including U.S. Supreme Court justices, U.S. attorneys general, and a U.S. secretary of state. He also joins a long list of distinguished Law School graduates to earn the medal, including Feinberg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, Professors Walter Gellhorn ’31 and Herbert Wechsler ’31, and Judge Jack B. Weinstein ’48 of the U.S. District for the Eastern District of New York.

“For my own life, I am almost embarrassed to say that I can have nothing but gratitude for my extreme good fortune,” said Lynch, who also spoke of the support he’s received over the years from his wife, Karen Marisak, his family, and his many colleagues and friends. “My life has been astonishingly fortunate,” he added.