Robert E. Keeton, ’41, a former professor at Harvard Law School and federal judge, died July 2 at age eighty-seven. Keeton was the younger brother of Page Keeton, ’31, who served as dean of the University of Texas Law School for a quarter century.
Keeton was born in Clarksville, Texas, on December 16, 1919 and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas. As an undergraduate, Keeton was one of three students inducted into UT’s prestigious Friar Society. While in law school, he served as the Assistant Editor in Chief of the Texas Law Review.
Keeton practiced law in Houston with the law firm of Baker & Botts until joining the Navy in World War II in 1942. As a Navy lieutenant in 1943, Keeton almost lost his life in the Pacific when his aircraft carrier was attacked by Japanese torpedoes. For his military service, he was awarded the Purple Heart. In 1945, Keeton returned to Baker & Botts in Houston and later began teaching at Southern Methodist University.
In 1953, Robert Keeton joined the faculty of Harvard Law School and in 1956 he obtained his S.J.D. from Harvard. In 1973, Keeton was named the Langdell Professor of Law and he served as Associate Dean from 1975–1979.
In the classroom, Keeton quickly developed a reputation for being a master of the Socratic method. Alan Rau, the Burg Family Professor of Law at UT, recalls fondly his first year torts class with Keeton: “His approach to the Socratic method was bright, merry, and twinkly, as he led you slowly to the revelation of the weakness of your own understanding. From Keeton and visiting professor Charles Alan Wright, I learned about the electric jolt of adrenalin that miraculously clears the mind of cant.”
As a law professor, Keeton became a leading expert in insurance law, tort law, and trial advocacy. In the insurance field, he is credited with developing “the reasonable expectations” doctrine and advancing the law of bad faith refusal to settle. Keeton’s work with University of Virginia Professor Jeffrey O’Connell is credited with reviving and advancing no-fault insurance in this country. In a series of writings from 1940 to 1960, Keeton also brought to the forefront the debate over the tripartite relationship among insurance companies, the insureds, and their lawyers. He enriched the field of torts with his work on causation and as well as his revision (with others) of the renowned Prosser on Torts treatise and his co-authorship of a leading casebook on accident law.
In the field of trial advocacy, Robert Keeton taught some of the first trial advocacy classes at Harvard and became an ardent advocate for the teaching of trial skills in law schools. He authored one of the first coursebooks on trial advocacy and from 1973–1976 he served as Director of the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. In 1988, the National Institute of Trial Advocacy honored Keeton by creating the Judge Robert Keeton Award for Outstanding Service in Teaching Trial Advocacy.
Robert Keeton was also an early advocate of computer aided legal instruction. In 1972, he collaborated with Russell Burris at the University of Minnesota to develop a computerized exercise for his insurance law course via telephone hookups from Harvard Law School to the Minnesota computer. These exercises served as an early model for the formation of the Center on Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, founded in 1982 by Harvard Law School and University of Minnesota.
In 1979, Keeton was appointed to the U.S. District Court in Boston by President Jimmy Carter and became a highly respected member of the federal judiciary. As a judge, Keeton became closely involved in the movement to streamline the discovery and trial process. In his courtroom, he was an early innovator of summary trials and settlement conferences. He issued a Model Stipulated Order for Conditional Summary Trial in the District of Massachusetts.
In 1989, Chief Justice Rehnquist appointed Judge Keeton as Chair of the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the committee responsible for developing the Federal Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure. In 1991, Judge Keeton had the foresight to create the Committee’s first style subcommittee. He pushed the drafting committee to review the federal civil and criminal rules for clarity and consistency. For this work, in 2004, Keeton received the Legal Writing Institute’s Golden Pen Award.
John Dzienkowski, ’83, John S. Redditt Professor in State and Local Government at UT Law and a former law clerk to Judge Keeton said, “Judge Keeton cared intensely about people, about the law, and about the judiciary. He approached every problem in life with the view that there was a better way to solve it. Judge talked on a daily basis with his clerks and other judges about how judging and trial practice could be improved. Judge Keeton’s clerkship was an invaluable learning experience.”
He retired as a judge in 2006.
Robert Keeton will be remembered for his love of learning and teaching, for his innovation in so many different areas of the law, for his great sense of humor and smile, and for his genteel, yet demanding, manner. He dedicated his life to improving the law and the judicial process in the goal of securing liberty and justice for all.
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