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Gellhorn, Walter

Gellhorn, Walter

(b. 18 September 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 9 December 1995 in New York City), legal scholar, author, and educator who was a major influence on the practice of administrative law and a staunch proponent of civil rights.

Gellhorn was the eldest of three children born to Edna Fischel, a campaigner for suffrage and a founder of the League of Women Voters, and George Gellhorn, a physician and social activist. (His sister, the writer Martha Gellhorn, was the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.) Gellhorn attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and received a B.A. degree in 1927. He then attended Columbia University Law School, where he edited the Columbia Law Review and was granted the LL.B. degree in 1931. Upon graduation he served as law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. In 1932 he married Kitty Minus; they had two daughters. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1932 and worked as an attorney for the U.S. Solicitor General from 1932 to 1933, when he left to become a law professor at Columbia University. His connection to the school lasted more than sixty years.

Gellhorn combined teaching with public service from the beginning of his long and distinguished career. In 1935 he joined the New York State Public Works Advisory Council and from 1936 until 1938 was a regional attorney for the U.S. Social Security Board. From 1939 to 1941 he was the director of the U.S. Attorney General’s Committee on Administrative Procedure. From this last experience came the 1941 publication of Administrative Law: Cases and Comments, which has gone through eight editions and is still considered to be the main text on the subject. He also gave the James Schouler Lectures in History and Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. These lectures were published as Federal Administrative Proceedings (1941).

During World War II, Gellhorn first served as the assistant general counsel and regional attorney for the Office of Price Administration (OPA) (1942–1943). In keeping with his views on civil liberties, in March 1943 he ordered the OPA investigators not to look for hoarded canned food except in cases of extreme violations, and then only with a search warrant. He left the OPA later that year to become a special assistant to Harold Ickes, secretary of the Interior, then became vice chairman of the National War Labor Board, Second Region. He was named board chairman in July 1945 and held that position until the board ceased its existence on 1 January 1946. He is considered to have been the driving force behind the U.S. Administrative Procedure Act of 1946. This law applies fairness and due process in regard to the rules and regulations administered by federal agencies. He also helped to write the Japanese constitution that was put in place after World War II.

Gellhorn was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and on its board of directors for twenty-five years. He also was a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In the late 1940s he reacted strongly against what he saw as excesses of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and published “Report on a Report of the House Committee on Un-American Activities” in the Harvard Law Review in 1948. He examined the problem of civil liberties in relation to scientific research and the need for secrecy in Security, Loyalty, and Science (1950). He argued rigorously against security regulations that he felt hampered scientific research by keeping discoveries hidden. In “Security, Secrecy, and the Advancement of Science” a chapter in Civil Liberties Under Attack (1951), Gellhorn again examined the impact of government control on the flow of scientific data. In 1952 he edited and contributed to The States and Subversion, in which he dealt with state laws that concerned subversive activities. In 1953 he headed the New York City Bar Association committee that prepared the Study of the Administration of Laws Relating to the Family in New York. The study concluded that a lack of trained investigators and social workers led to great deprivation for children in need of help. This report was published in 1954 as Children and Families in the Courts of New York City.

In the 1950s fear of communism grew rapidly in the United States. This led to an atmosphere in which people were unjustly accused of being communist sympathizers, and censorship was promoted as a means of national security. In 1956, when he presented a series of lectures on citizenship at Louisiana State University, he was criticized by the American Legion as being procommunist. The lectures, published as Individual Freedom and Government Restraint (1956), dealt with censorship in all its forms and proposed that Americans should have freedom of choice in what they read or watched on television. He continued to champion the preservation of civil rights. In 1957 he contributed to The Freedom to Read. He went on to write American Rights: the Constitution in Action (1960), When Americans Complain (1966), and Ombudsmen and Others (1966). The latter two works dealt with methods for handling citizens’ grievances both in the United States and abroad. In When Americans Complain, he examined the possibilities of having an ombudsman and concluded that, while not possible at the federal level, it was practical at the state and local government level. He is credited with helping to establish the idea of an official mediator to be used in negotiations.

Upon retirement from Columbia University in 1975, Gellhorn was named university professor emeritus, and in 1993 an endowed professorship bearing his name was created in his honor. Gellhorn served as a mediator from the 1960s, when he dealt with a controversy concerning a nuclear-powered vessel as well as the New York City teachers’ strike, through the 1980s, when he chaired the mediation panel for the city’s transit strike.

During his career he received numerous honors, including the Goldsmith Award in 1951 for Security, Loyalty, and Science and the Hillman Award in 1957 for Individual Freedom and Government Restraints. He was awarded the Columbia Law Alumni Medal for Excellence in 1971, the Learned Hand Medal in 1979, and the Distinguished Research Award from the American Bar Foundation in 1988, along with ten honorary degrees.

Gellhorn was a tireless champion of individual rights, whose influence on the administrative law of the United States, both as practitioner and teacher, was immeasurable. He died in New York City at age eighty-nine.

For further reading of Gellhorn’s legal writings see his Kihonteki Jinken, a compilation of lectures comparing American and Japanese law presented at the University of Tokyo (1959); Nihonkoku Kenponi Tsuite No Ronpyo (1959), a commentary on the Japanese constitution; Administration of the New York Workmen’s Compensation Law (1962); and The Sectarian College and the Public Purse (1970), which deals with church-related institutions and public funds. A memorial to Gellhorn by Peter Strauss appears in Administrative & Regulatory Law News (spring 1996). A number of tributes appear in the Columbia Law Review (Apr. 1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (11 Dec. 1995). The Oral History Research Office of Columbia University holds two Gellhorn reminiscences, from 1955 and 1977, respectively.

Roberta Pessah

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