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Bruce W. Kauffman, former federal judge and Pa. Supreme Court justice, dies at 86

In nominating him for the state Supreme Court, then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh praised Judge Kauffman's “personal integrity and temperament.”

Judge Kauffman and his wife, Carol, were married for 32 years, and spent some of their most memorable time together seeing the sights in Europe.
Judge Kauffman and his wife, Carol, were married for 32 years, and spent some of their most memorable time together seeing the sights in Europe.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Bruce W. Kauffman, 86, a retired judge at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a former justice for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and a longtime Philadelphia attorney, died Monday, Nov. 29, of complications from dementia at the Hearth at Drexel retirement community in Bala Cynwyd.

Judge Kauffman served in the federal District Court from 1998 to 2009 and was a justice for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from 1980-82. Beginning in 1960, he was an attorney, partner, and chairman over nearly 40 years at the law firm of Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish & Kauffman, now Dilworth Paxson.

He also taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and most recently was cochairman of the executive committee at the Elliott Greenleaf law firm.

Known for his optimism, intellect, and preference for resolution over rancor, Judge Kauffman usually sought common ground as an attorney and judge even when disagreements ran deep.

“I don’t just want to shoot from the hip,” he told the Daily News in 1980 after then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh nominated him for a vacancy on the state Supreme Court. “It does no good to be one vote out of seven and be a voice in the wilderness.”

In 1981, when considering a run for a full 10-year term on the state Supreme Court, Judge Kauffman said he would run only if both Republicans and Democrats endorsed him.

”Partisan politics and the judiciary don’t mix,” he said. “I have concluded that as a sitting justice, my first responsibility is to be independent and nonpartisan in the administration of justice, and to maintain high standards in the quality of my work on the court.”

After completing nearly two years of an appointed term that opened after another justice died, he eventually chose not to stand for election. “He loved being a lawyer and doing what he did every day,” said his son Rob. “Civility and respect were important to him.”

Judge Kauffman was chair of the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Board in the 1980s and chairman of the board at USA BancShares Inc. in the 1990s. Altogether, he was a member, fellow, chairman, trustee, delegate, and president of nearly 50 associations, commissions, task forces, colleges, committees, and foundations.

He published several articles about the law, including two opinion pieces for The Inquirer; won half a dozen awards; and was called “widely respected” by William Scranton, the former governor of Pennsylvania and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Judge Kauffman, then-chairman at Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish & Kauffman, weathered a rough stretch in the early 1990s when the recession forced the firm to cut staff and redefine its mission. In 1992, after the turmoil had passed, he told the Daily News, echoing his philosophy of life, “The strongest steel is forged in the hottest ovens.”

Born Dec. 1, 1934, in Ventnor, Judge Kauffman graduated from Atlantic City High School, the University of Pennsylvania in 1956, and Yale Law School in 1959. He clerked for Judge Vincent S. Haneman of the Superior Court of New Jersey before moving to Philadelphia and joining Dilworth Paxson in 1960.

Growing up along the Shore, Judge Kauffman like to sail, fish, and stroll the boardwalks. He was a lifeguard on the beach during high school, a job he called his all-time favorite, and he later escaped city life with visits to his homes in Ocean City and then Margate.

After two marriages ended in divorce, he met Carol Jackson, and they married in 1989. They lived for a long time at Rittenhouse Square and traveled together to Europe and elsewhere.

“He was a powerful yet thoughtful person,” his wife said. “You always knew where he stood on things.”

Judge Kauffman doted on his dog, Winston. He woke up early to watch the Sunday morning political TV shows, was the first in the delivery room after his grandchildren were born, and was friends with Frank Sinatra.

He liked to dine with colleagues, friends, and family at the Palm restaurant. But his favorites by most accounts were pizza and beer. He dressed as Santa Claus for many years when the Rittenhouse Square Christmas tree went up, and he reveled in spending time with his family.

“He had a bigger-than-life personality,” said his son. “He knew how to connect with people, and people responded to him. He had a natural way of leadership. I never saw him be petty. He wanted to resolve problems, not litigate them.”

In addition to his wife and son, Judge Kauffman is survived by son Brad; daughters Margie Sherr, Lauri Ann Damrell, and Christine Tracy; seven grandchildren; a brother; and former wives Gail Gutman and Rita Kauffman.

A memorial celebration is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2, at West Laurel Hill Funeral Home, 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004.

Donations in his name may be made to the Do Gooders, 18 Clwyd Road, Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004.