For almost two years, Connecticut’s legal community has been bracing for the death of U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz. But when amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — the disease that had robbed Kravitz of his ability to speak and to walk — finally took took his life last week, it still came as a devastating blow.

Today, there are deep pools of grief throughout the state’s bar.

In the federal courts, where his even-handedness and keen intellect has been appreciated by practitioners since Kravitz’s appointment in 2003. At the law firm of Wiggin and Dana, where he had practiced for 17 years as one of the state’s top appellate advocates.

And among members of the media, whom Kravitz had supported with pro bono advocacy at critical moments.

“Sixty-two was such a young age,” said Wiggin and Dana lawyer Jeffrey Babbin, an early member of the appellate advocacy practice group Kravitz established. “Mark was always young.”

“Judge Kravitz’ death is a great loss to our court,” said Alvin W. Thompson, the state’s chief federal judge. “He’s been a wonderful colleague. Over the years, he’s rendered exceptional service to the court and the bar and the public.”

Jonathan J. Einhorn, a New Haven attorney who practice criminal defense, has tried cases in front of Kravitz. “The thing that stands out most, aside from being a brilliant jurist, was he also had a nice human touch,” Einhorn said. “He liked people and he actually made me look forward to trying a case with him. He wasn’t a former prosecutor. In other words, he didn’t have any built-in government biases. The thing about Judge Kravitz was, he made you think.”

In a brief interview with the Law Tribune just over one year ago, Kravitz spoke clearly, but with evident difficulty. He said he was steadily losing strength in his upper body. He had been receiving care at the ALS clinic of the University of Connecticut Medical Center, where he participated in an experimental drug trial.

Matter-of-factly, he explained the state of modern science: “It is what it is. There’s no cure.”

He spoke of trying to keep up his running regimen — three miles, three times a week. He spoke of those who had survived with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — for five years or more. He spoke of staying on the job for as long as possible — and he did.

But in July, he began working from home instead of the New Haven courthouse. His criminal caseload was assigned to other judges. Finally, late last month, it was announced his civil cases would be reassigned.

“It’s just unimaginably sad,” said Edward “Jack” Dunham, who began at Wiggin and Dana the same day as Kravitz. “I’ve been thinking about the cliché that things happen for a reason. The only reason I can think of for this is a reminder to people that you can’t take anything for granted, and that you have to live life to the fullest, because you never know when it’s going to be taken away.”

Leave Of Absence

Kravitz’ career began brilliantly, and then got brighter.

After graduating from Wesleyan with highest honors, he earned his J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center, where he was managing editor of the law review. Kravitz then clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in his native Philadelphia before joining Wiggin and Dana.

A year and a half after joining the firm, Kravitz asked his boss, William Doyle, if he could take a leave of absence. Doyle recalls he was a bit grumpy about the request, since Kravitz was so new. But when Kravitz explained the leave would be to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. Doyle responded, “I think we can do that.”

Despite lucrative offers to work in the largest cities, Kravitz returned to Wiggin in New Haven, distinguished himself as a trial lawyer and appellate advocate and launched Wiggin’s appellate practice group into national prominence.

In 1998 alone, he won two reversals of multi-million dollar damage awards. In Doe v. Yale-New Haven Hospital, a young doctor who pricked her thumb with an HIV-infected needed had been awarded $12.5 million.

Kravitz saved his clients even more in Beverly Hills Concepts v. Schatz & Schatz, a complex case involving a fitness company that sued its lawyers for legal malpractice for the handling of matters related to trademarks, licensing agreements and promotional materials. The $16 million award was Connecticut’s largest legal malpractice verdict at the time. Kravitz convinced the state Supreme Court that even though legal malpractice may have occurred, no damages had been proven.

Kravitz’s appellate achievements got him hired to defend other bet-the-company cases on a national playing field. A legal malpractice insurer retained him to argue for reversal of another state-record award before the Utah Supreme Court. Other matters took him to federal and state courts in California, Illinois, and elsewhere. He also argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.

But Kravitz was never too busy to help teach and mentor colleagues. As an associate at Wiggin, Klau polished his legal writing and appellate advocacy skills under Kravitz. “Mark was, without question, the smartest and clearest legal thinker, the best editor and the best legal writing instructor I have ever known,” said Klau, now an appellate and media lawyer in the Hartford office of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.

As a parallel interest, Kravitz applied his expertise as a First Amendment lawyer to assist news organizations in trouble. Morgan McGinley, veteran editorial writer for The Day of New London Day, called Kravitz “[A] friend of journalism. He argued the case that saved The Day from the ravenous grasp of the IRS.” If the newspaper had lost that 1984 case, there’s a good chance the independent paper would have been sold to a chain, McGinley said.

Kravitz lent his skills, often without charge, to amicus curiae briefs for the Society of Professional Journalists and other entities advocating a free press. “There was no better lawyer, no better judge, and no better person,” said Mitchell Pearlman, the former executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission.

Seldom Reversed

It’s always controversial to judge a trial judge on his reversal rates, but earlier this year, Judge Jose Cabranes, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, noted that Kravitz “has been reversed fewer than ten times in nearly 700 written opinions and nearly 2,000 total cases closed.”

Any judge’s skills would have been tested by the 2010 case of United States v. Abbu Jihad, in which a former U.S. Navy sailor was charged with providing information about U.S. ship movements to jihadist groups. In his defense, the constitutionality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was challenged. The sailor was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In handling the trial, Kravitz, said Cabranes, “managed to find that elusive balance between respecting national security concerns and upholding the rights of criminal defendants in U.S. courts.” Kravitz’s “six excellent opinions in the course of that case were affirmed across the board, and with high praise from my colleagues on the Second Circuit,” Cabranes said.

As a guest judge on a Second Circuit panel in, New York v. Green, Kravitz was given the writing honors. That 2005 case involved an area of the law he knew well — construing rules of civil procedure. That case has been cited “no fewer than 338 times by courts across the country,” Cabranes noted.

As a federal judge, Kravitz received anonymous reviews from the lawyers who appeared before him. One wrote that Kravitz, “leaves parties, losers and winners, believing they got his utmost attention and consideration.”

Another advised: “Work hard to prepare, know your record and your client. Then enjoy yourself in the courtroom of a brilliant jurist and a truly good human being. Judge Kravitz brings out the best in lawyers who appear before him, by consistently giving his best and modeling what we all should aspire to achieve.”

In addition to his courtroom duties, Kravitz served as a member of the committee that oversees the rules and procedures used in federal courts across the country. Additionally, Chief Judge John G. Roberts Jr. in 2007 appointed Kravitz to chair the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, which oversees the way civil cases are tried in the nation’s federal courts.

In a May gathering of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, Kravitz was given an award for his service to the bar. Doyle, the litigation partner, cited Kravitz’ ability to balance the important things in his life. He quoted U.S. Attorney David Fein, a former Wiggin and Dana partner who said: “Mark Kravitz in particular impressed me with his ability to reach the elusive balance of dedication to work and family without compromising either.”

At that gathering, Kravitz spoke some of his last public words. He spoke about the strength of his 40-year marriage to his wife, Wendy, his healthy adult children, his two grandchildren, his pride in having clerked for a Chief Justice of the United States and for his “special” time on the U.S. District Court. “I never have any regrets about my life,” Kravitz said. •