Morton Katz was too old to practice law. Or at least that’s what an administrator in Connecticut’s public defender’s office felt a few years ago. Katz, now 99, has worked with that office on a contract basis as a special assistant public defender since 1997. He’s earned a reputation as a sharp and knowledgeable champion for his clients. But the administrator couldn’t see past his age.
Katz found the situation laughable. “She had some quaint notion when you’re over 30 you should be shot,” he says. Higher-ups in the public defender’s office agreed with Katz and told him not to worry about it. As one of Katz’s two daughters, Naomi Katz Cohen, remembers it: When the concerned administrator tried to remove Katz, she was told in no uncertain terms, “You don’t mess with attorney Katz. You just don’t do that.”
I meet Katz on a chilly Friday morning at Superior Court in Hartford. Dressed in a gray three-piece suit completed by a bright bowtie, he seems to have walked in from a different era. With his surprisingly thick head of white and gray hair and steady and determined stride, he looks hardly a day over 80, even though he is less than 100 days away from his 100th birthday in May.
Today, as on most days, Katz is grinding it out on the front lines of the criminal justice system. He has a pre-trial proceeding for one client. Another client could not make it to court because of transportation issues, and Katz was able to have the case continued to a later date.
I struggle to keep up with Katz as he moves from one office to the next, filing necessary paperwork for his clients. I learn he doesn’t use email. Though he has a cellphone, his infrequent use of the device is made evident by the fact that he doesn’t know the password for its voicemail. None of this has hampered his law career. He’s an aged but real-life Perry Mason not of, but for, the digital age.
“He’s fantastic. Our clients have tremendous respect for him,” says Laura Bryll, an attorney in the public defender’s office who knows Katz well. “He’s a charmer. You can see that the judges love him. He commands a room.”
Superior Court Judge Omar Williams is one of those judges. He says Katz handles serious felony cases with difficult “factual or legal arguments to make” with great skill. “Seeing somebody who is 99 years old, who is still not only practicing in the first place, but practicing at such a high level that he’s able to show up and be a prepared and persuasive advocate for people, it’s amazing and it’s inspiring.”
He even jokes that when Katz walks into a room, “I stand up.”
David Warner, the supervisory public defender in Hartford, agrees. He says Katz “does an excellent job,” adding that he is aware of only one client who ever thought Katz’s age was an issue. But, “he was an extremely difficult client who really wasn’t satisfied with any type of representation.”
“A lot of this is attitude,” Katz says of his long career after we sit down in a conference room inside the public defender’s office. “I may be an old buzzard but I don’t feel like an old buzzard. I get up in the morning and say, ‘Someone needs me. I’m going to try and keep this guy out of jail.’ That goes a long way.”
In addition to his work with the public defender’s office, Katz does free work for Statewide Legal Services and provides free assistance to veterans. It’s clear Katz takes great pride in winning legal victories, but even greater pride in what those victories mean for those he’s helped.
In one private practice case some years back, he represented a newly widowed woman. Prior to her husband’s death, the husband’s sister asked him to sign various documents. The sister claimed they were to protect his wife, but they actually handed over control of his assets, including his and his wife’s home, to the sister upon his death. According to Katz, the husband didn’t know what he was signing. Katz called the sister hoping to talk things out before the legal battle escalated. She told him to go to hell.
It was, Katz says, “the wrong thing to say to me.”
He brought all his legal know-how to bear on the case and filed a claim charging that the widow had a right to the house because she had lived there, and that the sister’s lawyers had a legal obligation that they failed to carry out to advise the husband to have his own lawyers look over the will.
Katz served the sister with the complaint. “Within 24 hours her lawyers called me and they folded up like a wet paper bag,” he says. “I saved this woman’s home from a scam. Now, it wasn’t the biggest case in the world, but this was her home and we protected her.”
Katz was born on May 15, 1919, in Hartford. World War I had ended just six months earlier and Woodrow Wilson was still president. Even Katz’s birthday had significance that has been lost to time. “May 15 is Straw Hat Day,” Katz explains. “It refers to the hard straw boater, the British-style straw hat. You may wear it on May 15 but you must take it off on Sept. 16 or your friends will take it off for you and punch the crown out.”
A straw hat wearer to this day, Katz came of age during the Great Depression. His father was a lawyer, but Katz was drawn to science initially. In the 1930s he studied chemistry at Connecticut State College, now the University of Connecticut. Though he did well in courses outside his major, he struggled with science. In 1940 he pursued a master’s in chemistry at Iowa State but once again struggled with research. “My first year there, I was on academic probation. I was a lousy student,” he says.
The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America’s entrance into World War II put his graduate studies on hold. A paratrooper, he served with the 82nd Airborne and saw action in several countries and was present for the liberation of the Wöbbelin concentration camp in Germany. He says one of his “best moments” in the war came during the Battle of Anzio in Italy during 1944. After U.S. forces shot down a German fighter plane nearby, “My patrols captured the pilot,” Katz says. “We had to find out where his airfield was so we could have it destroyed. He was a stubborn Nazi. Wouldn’t talk.”
Katz, who is Jewish, had an idea. He turned to his translator and said, “Tell this guy, this piece of crap, what I am.” The translator told the captured airman, “The lieutenant here is Jewish.” The prisoner was visibly shaken. “I thought this guy was gonna have a heart attack. It made my day,” Katz says. “He opened up and gave us everything we wanted.”
It was among the first of many verbal victories Katz would enjoy during his life.
After returning from the war with many medals and decorations, he finally realized science wasn’t for him and enrolled at UConn’s law school. In those days, he says, if you were a graduate of the university’s undergraduate program you were automatically accepted into the law school. “But they cut the classes ruthlessly, we lost half our students,” he says. Katz made the grade and instantly fell in love with his law studies. “I knew this was where I belonged. I was an honors student.”
After passing the bar, he became a Connecticut lawyer in 1951. He worked for a firm to begin with before eventually starting his own practice. Continuing his miltary service, Katz commanded the Connecticut-based 411th Civil Affairs unit from 1959 to 1967 when he was promoted to colonel and assigned to the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. He retired in 1972. Along the way he got married to a pharmacist, 12 years younger his junior, named Shirley. Today they have two daughters and three granddaughters.
There’s a question that’s always asked about people of Katz’s age: How do they do it?
Katz has his answer ready when I ask him. “Pick parents with good genes, that’s the first thing. Second is marry a pharmacist.”
Beyond that, Katz says he’s always exercised regularly, and prior to hip surgery in 2007 he walked four miles a day. He can’t do that anymore but still makes sure to do moderate exercises each day. It’s a daily regimen that inspires his family. His daughter, Rachel Brunke, says, “There’s days where I think, ‘I don’t want to go to the gym,’ but I think, my dad’s 99-and-a-half and he’s still trying to walk a couple of miles a day. I can certainly get in there and do it.”
When Katz is pressed for further longevity tips, he says the secret to remaining active is simple: “Remain active.” He adds, “If you like what you’re doing, just keep on doing it. How many people go out and they retire, figure they’re just going to sit around and relax and take it easy, and bingo they’re gone before you can throw ’em out.”
That’s why retirement isn’t in the cards for him.
“I like what I’m doing. I keep going because I want to keep going, and keeping going keeps me going,” he says. “If I stop what I’m doing and sit around playing shuffleboard, I’ll blow away in six months.”
Shirley, who did opt to retire, supports her husband’s decision. “He’s good at what he does and it makes him feel good to help people.” She adds, “He’s a remarkable man, and if you need a good lawyer, you’ve got one.”
As for the administrator who thought Katz was already too old? She no longer works with the public defender’s office. Katz sums the whole affair up with five words: “She’s gone; I’m still here.”