David L. Shapiro, Harvard Law professor and former deputy solicitor general, dies at 87

In addition to his teaching, Mr. Shapiro served as US assistant solicitor general.
In addition to his teaching, Mr. Shapiro served as US assistant solicitor general.Harvard Law School

In a 65-page critique of early decisions made by William H. Rehnquist, who was then an associate justice on the US Supreme Court, Harvard Law School professor David L. Shapiro wasted no time getting to his point — which he tucked at the end of his first paragraph.

Basing his view on the justice’s written opinions and votes, Mr. Shapiro wrote in 1976 that while Rehnquist was “a man of considerable intellectual power and independence of mind, the unyielding character of his ideology has had a substantial adverse effect” on his work.

Mr. Shapiro, the law school’s William Nelson Cromwell professor emeritus when he died at 87 on Nov. 19, was considered a leading intellectual light in the field of federal courts philosophy and theory. And for nearly a half-century he coedited editions of “The Federal Courts and the Federal System,” a key text for law students.


“David was the heart and soul of ‘The Federal Courts and the Federal System,’ ” John F. Manning, dean of Harvard Law School, said in a statement.

“He really shaped the field of federal courts. David was able to bring out the complexity and nuance of the law for judges, scholars, and practitioners, and he always did so with clarity and insight,” added Manning, who had joined Mr. Shapiro as a co-editor of the book’s sixth edition, published in 2010.

Still, Mr. Shapiro’s 1976 Harvard Law Review article on Rehnquist probably reached more eyes and ears as it was quoted or paraphrased often by scholars, politicians, and reporters — even in the chief justice’s New York Times obituary.

In 1988, two years after Rehnquist was elevated to chief justice, Mr. Shapiro found himself preparing to appear in front of the jurist whose work he had examined in that article, which some conservatives and reporters had characterized as “blistering.”


Mr. Shapiro had taken time away from Harvard Law School to serve as deputy US solicitor general, and he soon began arguing cases before the Supreme Court.

There he faced Rehnquist, whose performance in his early decisions “has been markedly below his own capabilities and has in large part been attributable to the inflexibility of his ideological commitments,” Mr. Shapiro had written in his article.

Charles Fried, a Harvard Law School professor who, as solicitor general in the Reagan administration, hired Mr. Shapiro to serve as one of his deputies, recalled that some critics questioned the wisdom of hiring “somebody who had been so critical of the chief justice. Well, I knew Rehnquist and I think he couldn’t give a damn and it wouldn’t bother him a bit. It turned out there was no issue.”

Certainly Mr. Shapiro was undaunted by the prospect. In the 40th anniversary report of his Harvard College class, he called his years as deputy solicitor general “an exhilarating time.”

The success he enjoyed was partly because Mr. Shapiro was “a lawyer’s lawyer,” Amanda L. Tyler, one of his former students, wrote for a Harvard Law School publication when he retired in 2006.

As deputy solicitor general, “he must have been a compelling advocate, for he won cases that, even with the benefit of hindsight, seemed like uphill battles,” added Tyler, who is now a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.


Mr. Shapiro was “a gifted appellate advocate on behalf of the United States, arguing 10 cases before the Supreme Court,” Noel Francisco, the current US solicitor general, said in a statement.

“As a colleague, he is remembered by those here at the department as a rigorous thinker, elegant writer, and warm mentor — open, straightforward, intellectually engaging, and all with good humor.”

As a scholar, meanwhile, Mr. Shapiro exhibited enormous influence “in the classroom and intellectually,” Fried said.

“There was a remarkable combination of common sense and intellectual rigor,” Fried added. “And that was very influential and very inspiring to students — that somehow the two could be brought together.”

In the classroom, Mr. Shapiro “wore his erudition lightly, but he was extremely erudite. He knew about all sorts of subjects that were not directly or even indirectly relevant to the subject matter,” said Michael C. Dorf, a Cornell Law School professor.

If a student asked a question that was outside the scope of what Mr. Shapiro was teaching, “he would invariably know the answer,” Dorf said, adding that he would then, off the cuff, recommend articles and other readings to further illuminate the issue the student had raised.

“He never seemed to be showing off,” Dorf said. “It was just sort of matter of fact.”

David Louis Shapiro was born in Manhattan, N.Y., in 1932, the only child of Louis Shapiro, an attorney, and Sarah Grabelsky, an art collector.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in 1954 and graduated summa cum laude three years later from Harvard Law School, where he worked for the Harvard Law Review and was awarded the Fay Diploma, which goes to the student with the highest combined average for three years.


Before returning to Harvard to teach, Mr. Shapiro worked at the Covington & Burling firm in Washington, D.C., and served from 1962 to 1963 as a clerk to John M. Harlan, an associate justice of the US Supreme Court.

“After all of three weeks in my new profession, I have concluded that teaching is an exciting and challenging profession,” he wrote for a Harvard class report after joining the Harvard Law School faculty in 1963.

In 1954, he married Jane Bennett, who for many years ran the Wendell Street Gallery in Cambridge, where they lived.

Their daughter, Lynn Mayson Shapiro, who died of cancer in 2011, had been a dancer, choreographer, poet, and memoirist. She had married Erik Friedlander, and they had a daughter, Ava.

“My wife is an art dealer, my daughter a choreographer, my son-in-law a cellist and composer, and his father a photographer,” Mr. Shapiro wrote for a 1994 class report. “As for me, that hemisphere of my brain seems to be missing.”

A Harvard Law School service will be announced for Mr. Shapiro, whose wife, son-in-law, and granddaughter are his only survivors.

“David was also a law professor’s law professor,” Dorf wrote in a tribute on his Dorf on Law blog.


Mr. Shapiro was successful in the classroom even though he spoke in a raspy whisper, due to a rare ailment that had required surgery on his vocal chords, and he used a microphone and speaker through much of his teaching career.

He was known for his “kind of a wry, understated sense of humor,” Fried said, and the vocal challenge was no exception.

“When I picture him in my mind, his shoulders are bouncing up and down as he laughs, typically at a joke he made at his own expense,” Dorf wrote.

To put students at ease as he used a microphone in class, Mr. Shapiro sometimes relied on well-placed quips.

In an interview, Dorf recalled that “one day he comes to class and says in his whispery, raspy voice, ‘I have to apologize today. I have laryngitis,’ ” Mr. Shapiro paused a beat and added with a smile, “I know what you’re thinking: ‘How does he know?’ ”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.