The following is a guest post from Eugene Mazo:
Morris H. Kramer, the plaintiff in Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 15, 395 U.S. 621 (1969), passed away on September 11, 2023. I got to know Kramer toward the end of his life, after writing about the history of his case for Election Law Stories, the book I edited with Josh Douglas in 2016. I’d like to offer readers of the blog a short remembrance.
Kramer’s case challenged a New York law that required citizens in some of the state’s school districts to own or lease taxable real property or have children enrolled in the public schools before they were eligible to vote for their local school board. Kramer failed to satisfy these criteria. He was single, lived in his parents’ home, and had no children.
In Kramer, the Supreme Court held for the first time that a statute granting the right to vote to some citizens while denying it to others had to survive an exacting standard of review. The Supreme Court would henceforth apply strict scrutiny to any laws that discriminated between different classes of voters. While the one person, one vote cases of the early- and mid-1960s halted numerical vote dilution, they offered no guidance on which citizens should be admitted to the franchise in the first place. This was Kramer’s contribution.
Kramer’s case marked the closing chapter of the Warren Court era. Chief Justice Earl Warren handed down his majority opinion in Kramer a week before he retired. When the decision was announced on June 16, 1969, it made the front page of The New York Times.
The case was argued by Osmond Fraenkel of the ACLU, a fact that always displeased Kramer. This was because the ACLU had originally failed to take his case. The ACLU also never invited Murray Miller, the lawyer who handled the case below, to the Court’s oral argument.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court described Kramer as a “31-year-old college-educated stockbroker who lives in his parents’ home,” “has no children,” and “neither owns nor leases taxable real property.” As such, his “attempts to register for and vote in the local school district elections have been unsuccessful.” I taught the casefor years and always had fun with these facts. I’d often ask my students, “So, how many of you still plan to live with your parents when you’re 31 years old?”
After I got to know Kramer better, however, I began to develop a different view of his case. Kramer was a deeply principled person who had been a quiet activist for most of his life. He was intelligent, and he was committed to improving the world. He was well-known on Long Island and in his local community as a “voice of the people.”
Born in the Bronx, Kramer was the youngest of three children. In school, he officially changed his given name, Moses, to Morris, though his friends (and I) always called him Mitty. By coincidence, Kramer’s date of birth—November 6, 1934—happened to be Election Day.
In 1947, Kramer’s parents decided to build a summer home on Long Island and purchased a plot of land in Atlantic Beach, a hamlet just west of Long Beach and east of what is now Kennedy International Airport. The Long Island Herald described it as “a desolate spit of sand jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, with a patchwork of modest homes, a bar where New York City mafia dons liked to lay low and a post office.”
After completing his Army service in 1956 and finishing his bachelor’s degree at Syracuse in 1958, Kramer moved into his parents’ summer home. It was located at 1632 Park Street, in Atlantic Beach. That was his address when he registered to vote in 1959, when he was denied the right to vote for the school board in 1965, and when he died earlier in 2023. For 65 years, Kramer had lived in the same house.
From Atlantic Beach, Kramer commuted to Manhattan for a few years while he worked in the financial industry. Former solicitor general Rex Lee once called Kramer “the bachelor stockbroker.” But selling stocks constituted a very small part of what Kramer did. He was also a teacher as well as a well-known environmental activist on Long Island. Safeguarding the environment was a goal that was as important to him throughout his life as protecting the right to vote.
Kramer developed strong ties to his community and was part of the fabric of his town for more than sixty years. His urge for belonging is what propelled him to file his lawsuit. What Kramer could not predict, of course, was how his yearning to participate fully in his community would thrust him into the national spotlight. His journey from local activist to Supreme Court plaintiff gave him a voice. In 1992, he ran for Congress. Later, he became a publisher author. And rather late in life, at age 49, he got married. His wife, Ronni Kaman, survives him.
Mitty Kramer was a character. He was warm, curious, and gregarious. He was interested in the world and its affairs. He read The New York Times daily and followed the Supreme Court closely throughout his life. Though not an academic, he was surprisingly knowledgeable about the basics of election law and read the work of several scholars in our field, a fact that always pleasantly surprised me. Every so often, I would get together with him for dinner. The photo below is of us at a Chinese restaurant on Long Island during the summer of 2018.
For me, Kramer’s life served as proof that ordinary Americans are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things. When I taught his case, Kramer would often visit my class. As our discussion of Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 15 wrapped up, I would ask the students if they had ever met the Supreme Court plaintiff, much less one whose case was argued back in 1969. Of course, they hadn’t. Then I would call Kramer from my cell phone and put him on speaker phone.
Kramer was always kind to the students. He patiently answered their questions, offering his New York accent as proof of his authenticity. One time, a student asked him whether he had any parting advice. Kramer thought about it, and finally said, “In life, you will all have ups and downs. During these moments, remember this: The Constitution is your best friend. Hold it near and dear to your heart, and it will guide you.” The students swooned. Some had tears in their eyes.
I called Mitty Kramer as soon as I got back to my office and asked what prompted this sentiment. And he told me that it came from his heart, and that this was how he honestly felt. It was very endearing.
Morris H. Kramer (1934-2023) was born on Election Day in 1934 and died on 9/11 in 2023. He was an American hero.
May his memory be a blessing.