For decades, Judge Nahum Litt served the people from inside the federal government. Chief judge at the Labor Dept from 1978 until retiring in 1994, Judge Litt was curious about the world, leading his keen mind to hold a little bit knowledgeable about a lot of subjects. His sister Trudy recalls, “Nammy was a walking encyclopedia – there was nothing under discussion that he could not contribute information to; it was as if he absorbed and retained whatever he read, just on the chance that it might come up in some future conversation.”
He also enjoyed birding, opera, travel, thrift shopping, and helping others. Perhaps Judge Litt’s greatest quality was standing up for human rights. A former law clerk, Ed Slavin recalled that Judge Litt “helped persuade the American Bar Association House of Delegates to pass resolutions protecting Gay rights (1989), whistleblower rights (1990) and security clearance due process (1989).”
The rights of working men and women were important to Judge Litt. When the country was plagued by men and communities suffering with painful, deadly black lung disease, Judge Litt hired a hundred lawyers and sent them to handle the claims of coal miners. That helped thousands of people and their coal mining communities. His daughter, Marcia, recalled the judge kept a lump of coal on his desk to remind himself of the needs of people.
Born August 3, 1935 in Baltimore, Maryland, a son of Harry and Reva L (Naiman) Litt, Nahum Litt was one of four children. His older brother, Daniel was born in 1933; a younger brother Abraham was born in 1944, and his sister Trudy born in 1947. Their parents were immigrants, recalled Trudy: “Both parents grew up in a small town in Russia (today the Ukraine). My father ran away to be a pioneer in Palestine; my mother traveled to the US with her mother and younger brother to join her father and brother already in Baltimore. They had been a “couple” back in Russia, and at the end of a long story and travel, our father joined our mother in the US in 1933.”
Litt was educated at Cornell University, and later at Columbia University. He became a member of the Bar in Maryland in 1959, and in the District of Columbia in 1969. Nahum married Judith A. Holzman, a Wellesly graduate in the class of 1958, on June 26, 1961 at Temple Sinai, in Washington, D.C.. Miss. Holzman was the daughter of Arthur D. Holzman and Selma Silverman Holzman. They had one daughter, Marcia Litt, of Washington, D. C. who survives them both.
Following divorce from bis first wife, Judith, Judge Litt was married to Judge Jean F. Greene on August 17, 1987. Judge Greene was also an administrative law judge, working at the Environmental Protective Agency.
Litt worked as an attorney at the Interstate Commerce Commission from 1960-1965. In 1965, he became an appellate trial lawyer in the General Counsel General’s office, serving in that capacity until 1970. Next, he was a hearing examiner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency from 1970-1977. Litt became chief Administrative Law Judge at the Civil Aeronautics Board, Washington, D. C. from 1977-1979.
Chairman Alfred Kahn of the CAB said of Judge Litt in announcing his appointment to Chief Judge that Litt “by conviction respects the traditions of the independence from the board that are essential to preserve the objectivity and the assurances of due process that we expect of our administrative law judges.” In 1979, Judge Litt was appointed Chief Judge of the Labor Department, a position he served in until his retirement. The Washington Post noted, “As chief judge, Litt is responsible for overseeing the management of an operation of 200 employees, including 73 administrative law judges, in offices scattered around the country.”
The first-generation son of immigrants, Judge Litt was awarded the Edith Lowenstein Memorial Award in 1987, for excellence in advancing the practice of immigration law. A member of the Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference, for which he served as president 1977, Judge Litt was a member of American Bar Association, and the Federal Bar Association. He was a former member of the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC.
Surviving change of administration and the whims of political appointees was not easy for Judge Litt. Standing up in court to protect the rights of workers is, in some ways, similar to being a whistleblower – it can make you unpopular with the powers that be who prefer to let injustice lie in order to serve the interests of wealthy corporations and the Chamber of Commerce. When one becomes too much of a crusader, eventually the powerful find a way to move one out of such a key position as chief judge in the Labor Department. In the bureaucratic language of government administrators, it can lead to a determination of non-standard performance.
Judge Litt retired from the Department of Labor in 1994 following a two-year disagreement with the labor department inspector general. He knew how the political game was played. In 1991, he was quoted in an article in the ABA Journal on the independence of Administrative Law Judges:
“Agencies exercise control via different ways,” says Nahum Litt, the chief administrative law judge at the U. S. Department of Labor, who nonetheless gives his department high marks for judicial independence. He said the administrators’ control methods range from “anything as petty as parking spaces, adequate secretarial, adequate law clerks, facilities, where judges are housed, how they’re house. A whole litany of small things.” (Debra Cassens Moss, “Judges Under Fire: ALJ Independence at Issue,” ABA Journal, Vol. 77, No. 11, Nov. 1991 pp 56-59)
Judge Litt wrote for the New England Law Review in 1983 concerning the tension between the duties of an administrative law judge and the agency where such judges served:
“The hallmark of the administrative process must be its fairness whenever it resolves disputes over governmental rights and benefits or otherwise arbitrates or adjudicates the private rights of citizens….What is apparent, however, is that governments in general have not yet come to terms with the level of process in the system required to guarantee fairness or the appearance of fairness.”
“There is no single answer that works well in every instance to balance how judges can be independent and accountable. There is no good answer to the question of how one evaluates a judge who is slow. Can anyone say that the judge who decides and issues forty cases a month but twenty come back on remand is better or worse than the judge who issues fifteen decisions a month and none are reversed? But, there can be no gainsaying that self-policing and peer review are better handled in the context of a unified corp or separate corp of judges than they are in situations where an agency having a stake in the outcome of a proceeding will be both the prosecutor, and possibly the judge, of the judge.”
“…outside of the small “old boy” network of interested judges and agencies that hire administrative law judges, few members of the public – those who will be most affected by the outcome of the debate – are either interested or knowledgeable.”
“Each of the reforms within the last decade has come because of strong interest groups having an issue and wanting their problem re-addressed. There are few public interest groups, however, which have reform of administrative procedures high on their list of priorities, and, more likely, most are not interested in pressing the point if it is to the detriment of their other principal issues.” Nahum Litt, “Forward: This Year’s Reform is Next Year’s Need for Reform” Western New England Law Review 6 3 (1983-1984)
In retirement, Judge Litt had many opportunities to enjoy birding, a passion he shared with his wife, Judge Jean F. Greene. They eventually moved to Florida, attended opera events, and traveled occasionally to distant places. The Judge also loved going to thrift shops, where he could find forgotten treasures of many kinds to delight him. However, his real interest was people. He liked to meet new people, and was generous in making suggestions to help them out of problems. He could send you to “see a guy” and it usually was worth your while to follow his advice.
Judge Litt is survived by his wife, Judge Jean F Greene of New Smyrna, Florida, by his brother Daniel in Cleveland, Ohio, his brother Abraham in Boston, Massachusetts, his sister Trudy Greener in Israel. His daughter Marcia lives in Washington, D.C.
Nahum Litt, “Forward: This Year’s Reform is Next Year’s Need for Reform”
Western New England Law Review Volume 6 (1983-1984) Issue 3
Nahum Litt & Joseph J. Simeone, An Administrative Law Judge Corps: Its Value and Relation to tile Traditional System of Justice, 11 WHITTIER L. REv. 569 (1989)
“Judith Holzman in Fiance of Nahum Litt; Welesly Graduate and ICC Lawyer Plan to Be Married in July,” The New York Times, March 5, 1962 105
“At Home in Washington,” Marriage Announcement, Washington, Post Jul 23, 1961 F12
Prabook, World Biographical Encyclopedia, https://prabook.com/web/nahum.litt/918057
Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference http://www.faljc.org/
Burton S. Kolko, “Wishful Thinking at the CAB” letter to the Editor, Washington Post, February 10, 1978 A14
Debra Cassens Moss, “Judges Under Fire: ALJ Independence at Issue,” ABA Journal, Vol. 77, No. 11, Nov. 1991 pp 56-59
Frank Swoboda, “Labor Dept Trying to Out Administration law Judge,” Washington Post, Feb 12, 1994 C1
Frank Swoboda, “Prominent Chief Judge Agrees to Give up Post,” Washington Post,
March 16, 1995
Ed Slavin, “Judge Nahum Litt (Retired) Turns 80 Today – United States Department of Labor Chief Judge 1979-1995” blog post cite to come