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Henry Putzel Jr., Supreme Court ‘reporter of decisions’ and language guardian, dies at 99

Mr. Putzel guarded against ‘‘mod words’’ that defied their dictionary definition.
Mr. Putzel guarded against ‘‘mod words’’ that defied their dictionary definition. Credit: Washington Post

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Henry Putzel Jr., a civil rights lawyer during the era of US Supreme Court-ordered desegregation who later worked for the high court editing and polishing its rulings and opinions, died Sept. 2 at his home in Peterborough, N.H. He was 99.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Henry ‘‘Pete’’ Putzel III.

As ‘‘reporter of decisions’’ at the Supreme Court from 1964 to 1979, Henry Putzel Jr. encapsulated opinions and prepared a syllabus of the decisions, often in intricate consultation with the nine justices. He was the 13th person to hold the position since the court’s establishment in 1789.

Reporters of decisions are expert grammarians. Although they do not delve into the substance of rulings, they must have an unfailing instinct about when legal citations or quotations may be amiss in a justice’s opinion.

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