by Dick Clapp
Judge Louis H. Pollak, who died on May 8, has been revered for his role as a civil rights lawyer, a volunteer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, dean of two law schools, and respected jurist. As my colleague Sheldon Krimsky, PhD of Tufts University observed,
Pollak was one of those practical idealists who understood the role of law for public purpose. In his place we find new libertarian jurists who see the law for private purpose.
In addition to these well-deserved accolades, I wanted to add a personal recollection of him that took place in the course of our work on the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP).
In 2003, we invited Judge Pollak to participate in the first Coronado Conference on Scientific Evidence and Public Policy. We had convened a group of distinguished scientists, philosophers of science, judges and policy experts to present papers and discuss the use and misuse of scientific evidence in public policy, and the implications of the 1993 Supreme Court’s decision Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. We were honored to have Judge Louis H. Pollak participate in the conference, in part, because of his notable decision just a year earlier questioning the scientific reliability of fingerprint evidence in criminal cases (U.S. v. Llera Plaza, Cr. No. 98-362-10, 2002 WL 389163 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 13,2002.))
We knew of Judge Pollak for this decision—-illuminating the disparity between the expected precision of scientific evidence in civil cases versus criminal cases—-but I also knew of him for another reason.
Louis H. Pollak was the federal judge who sentenced a former medical school classmate and housemate of mine, Alan Berkman, to twelve years in prison. Alan was convicted in 1985 for possession of explosives connected to a radical remnant of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In the New York Times article about the sentencing, Judge Pollak said he was dismayed that Alan was
“a person of such obvious talent, and, at some level, social good will, who was pursuing such a wrong-headed way of making the world better.”
I had stayed in touch with Alan while he was in prison and after his release on parole, so I told Judge Pollak about my housemate’s life since he served his time. By the time we talked at the SKAPP meeting about my former housemate, Alan Berkman was working at Columbia University School of Public Health and was doing ground-breaking work helping to assist hard-to-reach persons at risk of HIV/AIDS in New York and in South Africa.
Judge Pollak was pleased to hear this and asked me to give Alan his best wishes. I did as the judge asked. Likewise, Alan was pleased to hear about the federal judge who sentenced him to prison, and asked for his contact information.
I don’t know if they ever got in touch directly before Alan succumbed to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in June, 2009, but Alan’s widow, Dr. Barbara Zeller, said that Judge Pollak was part of the “good karma that Alan had” and which led to his extraordinary later career.
Louis H. Pollak was a humble man, with a keen legal mind and deep commitment to justice. I will especially remember him for his humanity and positive influence in the world.
Dick Clapp, DSc, MPH is an epidemiologist who has 40 years experience in public health practice, research and teaching. He is Professor Emeritus at Boston University School of Public Health and Adjunct Professor at the U. of Mass.- Lowell School of Health and Environment. He is a former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and served as Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980-1989.