A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

At the Criminal Justice Section party on December 18, we honored the late Professor Eddie Ohlbaum of Temple Law School with our Thurgood Marshall Award.

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Professor Ohlbaum’s wife, Karyn Scher, accepts the Thurgood Marshall Award from Section Chair Robert Muench.  The Marshall Award is the Section’s highest honor for outstanding service to the profession.

A Tribute to Eddie Ohlbaum

Jeffrey L. Dunoff[1]

It is a great honor to have the opportunity to say a few words at this event. It’s very easy to find words of tribute for my colleague, friend, and mentor Eddie Ohlbaum; superlatives flow easily and appropriately. But it’s also very hard to deliver a tribute to Eddie Ohlbaum. Eddie was, like a diamond, multifaceted. I can’t possibly hope to capture his larger-than-life personality, skills, and talents in the next ten minutes. Instead, I’ll try to highlight just a few of his professional and personal commitments, and try to suggest why they are more closely linked than might first appear.

Eddie’s professional career embodied what Oliver Wendell Holmes called living greatly in the law. After graduating from Temple Law School he joined the Defender Association. During his first year, Eddie’s first solo court appearance was in an arson case. Later that day, he reported to his supervisor, the First Assistant Defender, Lou Natali, a dear friend of Eddie’s who is here this evening.   Their dialogue went something like this:

Lou: How did it go today?

Eddie: I was sensational!

Lou: How did they prove the corpus delecti?

Eddie: What’s that?

After this conversation, Eddie filed a successful motion to quash. But Eddie didn’t just win the case, he absolutely immersed himself in the doctrine of corpus delecti; thereafter, Eddie became the go-to person in the office on this issue.

This is a great anecdote, because it shows not only Eddie’s brashness, but also his work ethic. Eddie eventually rose to the position of Senior Trial Lawyer, Special Defense Unit. During his eight years there, he tried some 75 jury trials involving major felonies and hundreds of non-jury trials.

In 1983, Bob Reinstein recruited Eddie to the office of university counsel at Temple University where he worked on civil litigations involving the University. But civil cases did not captivate him the way criminal law did, and in 1984 he joined the Temple law faculty.

Wearing the twin hats of Director of Trial Advocacy and Director of Clinical Legal Education, Eddie would transform the school. As anyone familiar with Temple knows, he was not simply the founder, director, and architect of one of the most outstanding trial advocacy programs in the country. He was its heart and soul.

How good was Eddie? The advocacy program has been at the very top of every law school ranking system since they started. And, with Eddie at the helm, Temple’s trial teams won multiple national championships — in the National Trial Team competitions, in the American Association for Justice Competitions, and in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers competitions. It takes enormous dedication and work to win any of these competitions once, let alone more than once. Eddie’s teams won regional championships in the national trial competition an astonishing 19 years in a row.

But although Eddie was intensely competitive, and burned to win, it was not only about the victories. Talk to anyone who had the good fortune to be on the trial team and they will tell you that working under Eddie’s leadership and tutelage was a transformative experience. It was where they learned to become lawyers.

His ferocious work ethic and astonishing talents brought an avalanche of accolades. His trial ad program twice won the American College of Trial Lawyer’s Emil Gumpert award – – the only program in the country to have twice won this award. Temple’s integrated program in trial advocacy won the ABA’s E. Smythe Gambrell Award. Eddie was awarded the Roscoe Pound foundation’s Richard Jacobson award. And he won the Cesare Beccaria Award for his contributions to the cause of justice.

At Temple, he won the Friel-Scanlon Prize for his outstanding scholarship. And, in 1994, he received the highest honor a university can bestow on a faculty member when he was appointed the inaugural holder of an endowed chair, the Jack E Feinberg Professorship of Litigation and Advocacy.

Why was Eddie so good at advocacy? A line from his last published paper captures it precisely. He wrote: “Courtroom advocacy is so much more than asking questions and making speeches. It is about character, specifically the character of the advocate as seen by the jury.”

So what shaped his character? As for all of us, there were many influences. One was his love for and knowledge of religion, of Judaism. In fact, the extraordinary legal career I just summarized almost didn’t happen. Before entering law school, Eddie strongly considered becoming a rabbi.

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Robert Muench, Section Chair, Estie Lipsit (Professor Ohlbaum’s sister), Jake Ohlbaum (Professor Ohlbaum’s son), Karyn Scher (Professor Ohlbaum’s wife), Jeffrey Lindy, Esquire, Professor Jeffrey Dunoff.

Like me, he was a member of Beth Am Israel synagogue. In that temple – as at Temple Law School – he was more than a leader. He was a pillar of our community. He served on many committees, on the Board, and taught our students, including my kids. He often led the prayer service. He sang and prayed with the same fervor and passion he displayed in the courtroom. He had a fabulous voice – not in terms or range or register, but because it was so rich, powerful, and full of emotion. And energy. So much energy. He was in constant motion, always bouncing around, and keeping the beat. Even in prayer, his dynamism and passion was on full display.

What ties these two sides, the legal side and the religious side together? Let me offer three thoughts.

First, if any one word describes Eddie Ohlbaum, it is righteousness. Eddie was intent on changing things for the better — directly, personally, and tangibly. His was an Old Testament righteousness, the righteousness of the prophets. He demanded justice. And accepted no excuses for injustice. Righteousness led him to represent the most vulnerable. Righteousness informed his work as a criminal defense lawyer. And it motivated his dedication to the Support Center for Child Advocates, where he represented children pro bono and served on the Board of Directors and advised on the most difficult issues facing the organization. His love of justice, his indignation when it was denied, came directly from the religious tradition at the core of his being.

I’ve often wondered why Eddie chose to focus on the law of evidence. I can’t help but wonder if this, too, is connected to his commitment to righteousness, to truth-seeking. Eddie produced the authoritative book on Pennsylvania evidence, was a consummate teacher of the subject, and guided generations of students who became judges and litigators. Of course he was attracted to the study of evidence because of its strategic importance at trial. But I also think it was because, like religion, it inevitably and incessantly confronts questions of fairness, the nature of human knowledge and the limits of human understanding.

If you doubt this link, look at his last law review article. It is called Jacob’s Voice, Esau’s Hands: Evidence-Speak for Trial Lawyers. The paper is built around the famous story from the Book of Genesis where the younger son Jacob tries to trick his ailing and elderly father Isaac into giving him a fatherly blessing intended for the older brother Esau.

Let me turn to a second link. The Bar Mitzvah. You will know it as a life cycle event when a young man of 13 is called to read from the Bible, the Torah, for the very first time.   Was it mere coincidence that at his Bar Mitzvah, the future law professor would read from the chapter where the ancient Israelites established a judiciary, and Moses received the laws from G-d on Mt Sinai?

But the Bar Mitzvah I want to focus on is not his, but his son Jake’s, whom you’ll meet in a few minutes.

When people talk about Eddie, they invariably recall some great speech he gave. Some will mention being on a board facing a tough decision, when Eddie made a great speech to sway the board to do the right thing. Others will remember some great class lecture Eddie gave. Still others will recall a great closing speech he made in court.

Eddie Ohlbaum made many fine speeches. But his greatest speech – his greatest speech — was the one he gave at Jake’s Bar Mitzvah.

After Jake read from the Torah, Eddie rose to give a parental blessing. He began by saying that he had waited 13 years for this moment. Then Eddie mentioned how much he wished that his father, who has passed away, could be at Jake’s Bar Mitzvah, and how much he missed his father. And Eddie then delivered one of the most moving and astounding talks I have ever heard. What made it so astonishing was that it evidenced so many of the different qualities Eddie had, so many of the facets of the diamond. It was full of his wit. His wisdom.  His love of religion. His erudition. Perhaps even a bit of his snarkieness. But mostly, it had his humanity. And when he put his hands around Jake’s face to bless him, all of the passion and all of the intensity and all of the energy that was Eddie Ohlbaum was focused in a moment of crystalline intensity and brightness. In this extraordinary moment, he bared and offered his soul.   Those of us lucky enough to bear witness to that moment know, indelibly, that Eddie’s gifts as a teacher, mentor, and colleague were rivaled only by his devotion as husband and father.

I began by suggesting that is both terribly easy and terribly hard to deliver a tribute to Eddie Ohlbaum. But most of all it is terribly unfair to deliver a posthumous tribute. Eddie was taken from us much too soon. As profoundly and enduringly unjust as that reality is, I take great solace in an even larger emotional and spiritual reality.

There is one point in the weekly prayer service when all congregants stand on their toes as they recite the Hebrew word “kadosh,” meaning holy. Tradition says we do so to get ourselves a little closer to G-d, to be a little more like the angels. Both literally and figuratively, Eddie Ohlbaum was always on his toes. He made each of us a little more like angels.

[1] Laura H. Carnell Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law. In preparing these remarks, I benefitted greatly from exchanges with JoAnne Epps, Randi Harris, Harriet Katz, Barry Kramer, Lou Natali, Harold Messenger, and Marc Zucker, all of whom were kind enough to share memories of Eddie Ohlbaum with me.

Awards presented at Criminal Justice Section party

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President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper received an award for her leadership.

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Deputy Court Administrator Janet Fasy received the Henry Czajkowski Award in behalf of the Office of Court Reporter, Digital Recording and Interpreter Administration.  The Czajkowski Award honors exceptional service by non-lawyers to the criminal justice system.

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Clerk of Courts Joseph Evers received the Henrty Czajkowski Award.

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Isla Fruchter received the Chairman’s Award for organizing Continuing Legal Educations programs for the Section.

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James Funt was honored for his service as last year’s Chair of the Section.

Aaron Finestone received the Chairman’s Award for administering the Criminal Justice Section Blog. 

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