Meltzer mastered labor law, prosecuted war criminals during his career
Bernard D. Meltzer, a leading scholar of labor law, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials and the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Law School, died Thursday, Jan. 4, at his home in Chicago. He was 92.
Meltzer’s scholarly work, along with his teaching of the Socratic method, made him one of the most important faculty members at the Law School and among legal scholars nationwide. His publications on labor law, arbitration and the role of juries continue to be widely cited.
University of Michigan law professor Theodore St. Antoine once described Meltzer as “the finest craftsman” among labor law scholars, stating that there was “no person in the entire field of labor relations who is so adept at asking all the right questions, recognizing all the competing interests and exposing all the ancient shibboleths.”
Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants, Meltzer spent four semesters at Temple University before transferring in 1934 to Chicago—a move he once described as “an exhilarating and transforming experience.” Meltzer completed his undergraduate studies in 1935, and in 1937, he obtained his law degree, graduating first in his class.
Meltzer received a graduate fellowship to study the following year at Harvard Law School, where he earned his A.M. in Law in 1938.
Before joining the Chicago Law School faculty, Meltzer worked in the General Counsel’s office of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1938, disregarding the advice of Harry Bigelow, then Dean of the Law School, who said, “Meltzer, you’re too independent a cuss to be a government clerk.” He later served as Special Assistant to SEC Chairman Jerome Frank.
He moved back to Chicago in 1940 to join the law firm of Mayer, Meyer, Austrian and Platt, but was called back to Washington, D.C., the following year to work as legal consultant to the National Defense Advisory Commission. From 1941 to 1943, Meltzer served in the State Department, serving as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson and as Acting Chief of the Foreign Funds Control Division.
Meltzer worked successfully to help persuade the State and Justice departments to abandon a restrictive interpretation of the Neutrality Act in order to permit delivery of Lend-Lease shipments to American allies, and he helped to draft the initial Lend-Lease agreements with allied nations. He also attempted, ultimately without success, to gain government approval to permit the use of funds to finance efforts to free Eastern European Jews threatened with deportation and extermination.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Meltzer enlisted in the Navy, but was not accepted because of poor eyesight. He was, however, commissioned in 1943 as a naval officer and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services. When World War II ended, Meltzer was assigned to assist in drafting the charter of the United Nations.
In 1946, he joined the United States Prosecution Staff at the Nuremberg International War Trials. He coordinated a team of lawyers responsible for assembling evidence relating to the “economic case,” involving defendants who had helped to finance or build the German war machine while knowing of the Nazis’ aggressive purposes, and defendants responsible for plundering occupied territories and for the deportation and exploitation of millions of slave laborers.
Meltzer conducted the pretrial interrogation of Hermann Goering and presented the case at trial against Walter Funk, economics minister and president of the Reichsbank, when it became the storehouse for valuables stripped from concentration camp victims. Meltzer also worked on the presentation of the concentration camp case, describing the Nazis’ methodical recordkeeping at the death camps as “a lawyer’s dream but a humanist’s nightmare.”
Meltzer joined the Law School faculty in 1946 after returning from Nuremberg. He developed the first course in the country on international organizations, although he later specialized in labor law and evidence.
“Professor Meltzer was a giant of legal education and of the bar. He was known to earlier generations of students for his mastery of the Socratic method, and of students themselves. These students—present day leaders, judges and lawyers—recall his sharp wit and directness with awe,” said Saul Levmore, Dean of the Law School. “Our greatest discussant is gone, but his spirit and his talents will always define us.”
Meltzer was an inaugural recipient of the University’s Norman MacLean Faculty Award, recognizing a senior faculty member’s outstanding contributions to teaching and to students.
“Those of us who were Bernie’s colleagues or his students—a rather meaningless distinction in Bernie’s case—benefited greatly from his practicing law in every possible setting: the classroom, his office, the student lounge, at faculty meetings, at dinner parties,” said Gerhard Casper, a former Law School Dean and president emeritus of Stanford University. “A scholar of great integrity and influence, he was one of the loveliest human beings that I have known,” Casper added.
Since his retirement in 1985, he continued to write and consult, and he practiced law at Sidley and Austin in Chicago. Meltzer also served as a labor arbitrator, a special master, chairman of the Cook County Hospital Committee, a member of the Illinois Civil Service Commission, a salary arbitrator for Major League Baseball, and a consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Meltzer also drafted the charter of the Southeast Chicago Commission. Additionally, he also advised attorneys representing clients during the McCarthy era and also successfully represented clients in loyalty investigations.
Meltzer also was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Law Institute.
Surviving Meltzer are his wife of 60 years, the former Jean Sulzberger; a daughter, Joan FitzGibbon, of Indianapolis, Ind.; a son, Daniel, of Cambridge, Mass.; a daughter, Susan Yost, of Columbus, Ohio; and six grandchildren. A public memorial service for Meltzer is planned for 2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 2, in the Law School’s Glen A. Lloyd Auditorium, 1111 E. 60th St.