As the nation debates the character and credentials best suited for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a good role example is the late Bernard Meyer, a former justice of New York’s Court of Appeals whose life’s work improved the quality of law here.
Meyer, who died earlier this month at 89, was a compassionate champion for the people who most needed help from the law.
Yet, precedent, not personal ideology was the tenet of his legal philosophy. Soon after he became a judge of the State Supreme Court in Nassau County in 1959, Meyer had to decide a challenge from parents in the Herricks School District who objected to a non-denominational prayer being recited in school. Adhering to prior rulings, Meyer held the prayer was constitutional as long as no child was required to say it. He was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark and still controversial opinion. The judge may not have been personally comfortable with school prayer but he followed where precedent led.
Meyer’s guiding belief in the need for certainty and consistency in the legal system led to what is considered his greatest contribution: writing standardized jury instructions for civil cases. Finished in 1979, this compendium is still the definitive reference for judges and lawyers.
At a tribute service scheduled next Monday in the Mineola courthouse, speakers are likely to use words such as wisdom, integrity, humility to describe Meyer. Another way to say it: judicial role model.