Obituary: Matthew Katz, 1946-2024 (2024)

Burlington lawyer was inspiration for a Vermont Bar Association award that recognizes deep commitment to the law and professionalism

Published July 2, 2024 at 6:00 a.m.

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  • Matthew Katz

Matthew Ira Katz was born on August 6, 1946, to Abraham and Minnie Katz in New York City. They lived in Queens Village with his older brother, Sheldon. They spoke Yiddish and grew up surrounded by a large extended family. Abe worked in the diamond district as a stone setter, while Minnie stayed at home.

Matt graduated from New York City public schools. He attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., graduating in 1967. He immediately went on to Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J., where one of his favorite professors was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He married Elaine Kaplan in 1968, in Northampton, Mass. Upon graduating from law school in 1970, he and Elaine moved to Burlington, Vt. At the age of 23, he started his law career at Vermont Legal Aid as a staff attorney in the Burlington office.

During his three-year employment at Vermont Legal Aid, he was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in Beecham v. Leahy, a challenge to the constitutionality of Vermont’s abortion prohibition law. He won in the Chittenden Superior Court in a landmark decision from the Vermont Supreme Court that predated the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Matt valued civic duty, serving on several local boards and committees and running unsuccessfully for Burlington city alderman on a platform to increase local bus service.

Matt moved on to the Burlington law firm of Latham, Eastman, Schweyer and Tetzlaff, where he began as the firm’s counsel for the University of Vermont. He became a partner at the firm and developed experience in commercial litigation, representing clients in banking and construction.

In 1985, governor Madeleine Kunin appointed Matt to a Vermont Superior Court judgeship. Like all superior judges at the time, he sat in superior courts in many counties and presided over all kinds of trials in civil, criminal and family cases. He developed expertise in civil cases and often sat in the Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington. On his retirement, the assistant judges named the second-floor courtroom in the Chittenden Superior Court the Judge Matthew Katz Courtroom in his honor.

Although Matt sat primarily in civil cases, it was a criminal case that gave him the most notoriety, again involving abortion. A group of anti-abortion protestors were arrested for illegal activities in connection with protests at Planned Parenthood and were brought before Judge Katz in criminal court. He ordered them to be released on bail, but only if they gave their names, which they refused to do. A standoff resulted, and the protestors were placed in jail. Other anti-abortion protestors then conducted a protest at Judge Katz’s house, the only time in Vermont that such a home protest has occurred.
Matt was also known for his humor. In the lulls that occasionally occur in trial proceedings, Matt would write limericks and draw cartoons on what was occurring in court. To capture his essence, many were read at his retirement party.

Later in his career, he was nominated to be a member of the prestigious American Law Institute. The ALI is the nation’s leading independent organization producing scholarly work to clarify, modernize and improve the law through restatements. Membership in this historic and prestigious organization is by invitation and a recognition that a person is at the top of their field as a leading professor, advocate or judge.

Matt retired in 2011. Eight months later, he had a stroke that impaired his mobility and speech. He joined the Aphasia Choir, a group of stroke and traumatic brain injury survivors who, despite speech deficits, sing using a different part of the brain than are impacted by aphasia. He sang with the choir at its annual performances. He had so many incredible and giving coaches in his physical, occupational and speech therapists, and medical team. He enjoyed NDAA (adaptive) Kayaking with old friends at the Waterbury Reservoir and in the Champlain Islands, and he always looked forward to attending Tuesday UVM stroke group meetings. During this phase of his life, those around him were inspired by his positive attitude and resilience. We are thankful for all the wonderful people who cheered Matt on during his recovery.

In 2015, the Vermont Bar Association created the Matthew Katz Award to be given to persons in the judicial system who demonstrate the characteristics of Judge Matthew Katz. These include a deep commitment to the law, professionalism and fair treatment for all who come before the judiciary.

Matt had many interests outside the law, including nature photography, cooking, history and current events. He was adept at lemon currant scones, and a family favorite was his mushroom barley soup. He was partial to biographies and listening to the MET Opera on the weekends. He and Elaine traveled widely together. Their adventures included backcountry trekking to the Havasupai Indian reservation, hiking, fly-fishing and horseback riding in Arizona and Colorado. He enjoyed traveling through Europe, taking photos, absorbing historical landmarks and enjoying the cuisine. Just a week prior to his stroke, he and Elaine completed a biking trip through southern Italy.

Matt was a special mentor, husband, father and zaide. Never one to impose, upon request, he was always willing to add grammatical and content suggestions to papers. He was very proud of his ability to say more with less. He will be missed but never forgotten.

Matt is survived by his wife of 55 years, Elaine Katz; son, Ben, and his wife, Dr. Megan Malgeri, of Burlington, and their two daughters, Sylvia and Louisa. Matt had many beloved friends and family. We would like to recognize the many attorneys, judges and friends who visited the house and nursing home to read to Matt. He had visitors three to four days per week, solidly, for the past 12 years. The love and compassion his friends displayed was nothing short of magical and brought great joy to Matt. You all brightened his life.

Matt’s funeral was held on Friday, June 28, 11 a.m., at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vt.

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Obituary: Matthew Katz, 1946-2024 (2024)
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