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Howard F. Sachs- Senior U.S. District Judge, Western District of Missouri

Howard Sachs has dreams about the law. The dreams will persist, he supposes, even after he steps down from his role as Senior U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Missouri. But for now, the 92-year-old wishes to remain.

“The tradition in this district is to stay with the work as long as feasible,” said Sachs, the oldest judge in the 8th Circuit to retain a docket.howard-sachs-photo1

Nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Sachs has spent more than 38 years on the federal bench, and in that time has made his mark on American jurisprudence. It was Sachs who ruled in 1984 that inmates have the right to marry; the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. In the late 1980s, when federal districts were split on the constitutionality of new federal sentencing guidelines, Sachs wrote the majority opinion in his district arguing in their favor. The nation’s high court affirmed that ruling, too.

Sachs developed a hands-on style of presiding over cases during his tenure, sometimes asking questions of witnesses himself to clarify the issues at hand. He revealed his esteem for the judiciary upon sentencing one of his own: in 2003, a former Missouri associate circuit judge pleaded guilty to soliciting a bribe to dismiss a case. Sachs went beyond the requests made by both the defense and the government in sentencing the judge to four years.

Although Sachs attained senior-judge status 25 years ago, he has not exactly faded into the background. As recently as April 2017, Sachs granted Planned Parenthood a preliminary injunction in its suit against Missouri, invalidating state legislation mandating that abortion doctors have hospital affiliations and abortion clinics meet requirements imposed on ambulatory surgical centers.

Before ever donning a judge’s robe, Sachs worked in private practice for nearly three decades, first at Phineas Rosenberg and then at Spencer Fane Britt & Browne. He handled matters related to labor law, property disputes and other issues.

Sachs played a central role in the integration of the Kansas City Bar Association. By 1955, that organization was explicitly closed to women and unofficially closed to black and Hispanic lawyers. When the KCBA’s leadership rejected applications from three black candidates that year, Sachs and 15 colleagues – many of them World War II veterans like Sachs, who had served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific – chose to stand up for them. The KCBA fully integrated within months.

Sachs had grown up in a Jewish family in Kansas City. His parents were friends of Harry and Bess Truman, and the two families kept up a correspondence for years, some 200 pages of which is now preserved in the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Sachs has spent much free time in that library researching pre-war letters to then-Sen. Truman from German and Polish Jews trying to get visas to the United States.

Now in the twilight of his legal career, Sachs said he looks out on the U.S. legal system and has concerns. He believes criminal punishment can fail to act as a deterrent and prove harmful to both defendants and their families. He also is worried about confusion arising from the differences between federal and state sentences for similar offenses.

He humbly points out that he has “no big solutions” to these large-scale problems. Rather, he focuses on what he can contribute to Missouri’s Western District: “to help out with the docket and (sometimes) to work the system as I think best for the parties, hopefully guided by thought and experience not available to some other colleagues.”

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