Lawrence Kaplan, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Family Division judge whose arbitration of intimacies set a peerless precedent, died in the company of his wife Natalie on Monday, Feb. 18. He was 90.
Kaplan, though having never aspired to attain the bench, became a judge after an appointment from Gov. Milton Shapp in 1978. One year later, Kaplan was elected to a 10-year term, and in 1989 retained again. In 2008, the Jewish judge who was born to Dr. Edward and Libby Kaplan 80 years earlier on Aug. 21, 1928, stepped down from the court, having reached the state’s mandatory retirement age, and re-entered private practice where he served as a mediator and mentor.
As a judge and gentleman, Kaplan was nonpareil, said Judge Dan Butler.
In 1978, Butler became Kaplan’s first law clerk. He held the position for 7 years.
“Most days we drove to work together, getting in by 8:30,” said Butler. “I watched him day after day. And he allowed me to be part of the process in the inner sanctum as he exercised the warmth, concern, equanimity, fairness, patience and that humor that made him so unique,” but what truly separated Kaplan was that “he listened,” said Butler, a judge of the Allegheny County Magisterial District.
“There was no judge with a better judicial temperament than he had,” echoed Raymond Baum, a practicing attorney who knew Kaplan for 50 years. “He was patient, he was focused on the welfare and well-being of the families and the children, and in any way not focused on himself. He never let his ego get in the way of his judgment and temperament, never lost his sense of humor and never took himself too seriously.”
Such was attested to by the countless colleagues and disciples who attended Kaplan’s funeral at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Feb. 22, said his daughter, Ellen Teri Kaplan Goldstein of Pittsburgh.
Among the nearly 1,000 attendees was an attorney who appeared before the judge decades prior. As masses snaked around the Shadyside congregation, the lawyer reiterated his account to Goldstein: The case involved criminal law, and though Kaplan typically attended to family matters, the Uniontown-born judge was called upon to hear the dispute. After both sides had rested, a decision was announced and the lawyer had lost. Having heard the outcome, the losing client turned to his advocate and said, “I know I lost, but I felt like I was treated really fairly.”
Kaplan’s gift as judge was that in the thousands of people who presented him their troubles, “he was successful, if not always in achieving a consensus, then entering a decision which generally left even the most unreasonable people with the feeling that they had been treated fairly and that they had had their day in court,” said Butler.
Humor was a common tactic for putting parties at ease, said his son, Thomas R. Kaplan of Delray Beach, Fla.
A particular joke which Kaplan was known to tell was recited by his son, Jon Adler Kaplan of Baltimore, Md.: “What’s the difference between unlawful and illegal? Ill eagle is a sick bird.”
Through songs, poems, limericks and quips, Kaplan demonstrated cleverness and good spirit.
He had a creative spark, which manifested itself in his love of music and the arts, said Jon Adler Kaplan.
A clarinetist who performed in the University of Pennsylvania marching band and a lover of dance, Kaplan went on to participate in more than 60 shows, mostly through activities with Rodef Shalom Congregation and the Allegheny County Bar Association, said his daughter.
“My dad and my mom were known for dancing. They loved the jitterbug and they were good at it,” said Jon Adler Kaplan. “Whenever there was an opportunity to dance they would. Whether it was a wedding, bar mitzvah or special occasion, they were always on the dance floor.”
Married for 66 years, the duo began their courtship as students at the University of Pittsburgh. Kaplan was in law school and Natalie Adler was a master’s student in education when the two met in an elevator.
“My father’s joke was our life has had its ups and downs ever since,” said Thomas R. Kaplan.
Throughout their marriage, Larry, a judge and mediation expert, and Natalie, an educator who founded Carriage House Children’s Center Inc., sought to steady life’s unbalances. After recognizing the familial burdens of jurisprudence, the Kaplans worked with the National Council of Jewish Women’s local chapter to create the Children’s Rooms in the Courts. In 1980 the first Children’s Waiting Room opened and became a place where kids could safely reside without having to see and hear the disputes their parents or guardians were having inside the court.
Since 2001, nearly 60,000 children have benefitted from the space.
“My father was a phenomenal community activist,” said Thomas R. Kaplan.
Among numerous undertakings, he was a religious school teacher and served as president of the junior congregation at Rodef Shalom, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Jewish Committee and president of the Pennsylvania Bar Institute.
“You just can’t take all your life,” the deceased jurist said in a 1999 interview with NCJW, Pittsburgh Section. “You got to give as well. It’s always sort of been a philosophy of mine, so if you give back the interest is compounded.”
Lawrence Kaplan is survived by his wife Natalie; two sons, Thomas Ross (Pamela) Kaplan and Jon Adler Kaplan; daughter, Ellen Teri Kaplan (Michael) Goldstein, and three grandchildren. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.