Faculty Tribute

Professor Emeritus Benjamin Kaplan: 1911-2010

A Legendary Teacher, in the Classroom and on the Bench


Professor Emeritus Benjamin Kaplan

Benjamin Kaplan, the Royall Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School and a former justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, died Aug. 18, 2010.

A specialist in civil procedure and a preeminent copyright scholar, Kaplan co-wrote the first casebook on copyright, with Yale Law Professor Ralph Brown ’57 in 1960. His 1967 seminal text, “An Unhurried View of Copyright,” grew out of a series of lectures he delivered at Columbia Law School.

“Ben Kaplan was a towering giant in the law with legendary wisdom and analytic precision,” said Dean Martha Minow. “The generations of students and litigants guided by his work as professor and justice ensure that his legacy will long endure.”

Kaplan first joined Harvard Law as a visiting professor, in 1947. The visit turned out to last a quarter of a century, during which he developed his long-standing interest in civil procedure and intellectual property, joined the permanent faculty, and had a lasting influence on generations of students, legal scholars and jurists.

“Sometimes one is lucky enough to have a teacher who changes one’s life,” said Professor Andrew Kaufman ’54. “Ben Kaplan was such a teacher, and I was his lucky student. He taught me how to think critically about law and life.”

Professor David Shapiro ’57 said of his former teacher: “Ben Kaplan’s wisdom and wit, and his mastery of the art of teaching, have been an inspiration to me as a student and throughout my academic career. Like the many others who have had the good fortune to work with and learn from him, I treasure the experience—he was a wonderful combination of rigor and encouragement, of skepticism and faith.”

Kaplan’s students also included two Supreme Court justices, Stephen Breyer ’64 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’56-’58.

At a memorial service that filled Ames Courtroom in October, Breyer called Kaplan “the master of us all.”

“To listen to Ben teach,” he added, “was to listen to the Socratic method at its best, used by a first-rate craftsman and articulated by a true gentleman.”

Breyer also recalled how beautifully Kaplan wrote, but he praised above all, “the quality of his thought and analysis, his integrity, his humanity that animates his opinions and assures us that they will last.”

Kaplan graduated from Columbia Law School in 1933, and he began his law practice with the New York firm Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst, participating in the civil rights case Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939.

In 1942, he joined the U.S. Army, ending his tour of duty as a member of Justice Robert Jackson’s prosecuting staff in the first Nuremberg case. Working first with Col. Telford Taylor ’32 and then with Jackson, Kaplan played an important role in drafting the indictment in the case.

In 1972, Kaplan left the Harvard Law faculty to become an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He served until 1981, when he reached the constitutional age for retirement. He was recalled to the Massachusetts Appeals Court in 1983.

In a 1988 profile in the Bulletin, Kaplan said: “Each appellate case presents itself as a puzzle. The challenge is to find the one right solution, and to explain it in a way that satisfies not only the Bar and the specialists but also the general intelligent public. There is not much difference in the end between judging and teaching. The job of the judge, like that of the teacher, is to instruct, to educate.”


Next: Leadership Profile: Kenneth I. Chenault ’76