A descendant of President John Quincy Adams, he entered public life as a patrician liberal politician, but later developed a reputation as a steely, independent-minded judge with little patience for lawyers' antics.
Nickerson came from patrician Yankee stock, and was a descendant both of the Nickerson family of Cape Cod and of President John Quincy Adams. His mother, né Ruth Constance Comstock (July 11, 1891 – August 15, 1988), was from Orange, New Jersey. She gave birth to three sons: Schuyler, Eugene and Adams. His father, Hoffman Nickerson (December 6, 1888 – March 24, 1965), was an Army officer, state legislator, and historian who wrote The turning point of the Revolution; or, Burgoyne in America concerning the Saratoga campaign.
Eugene grew up in New York City and Mill Neck on Long Island. At St. Mark's School in Southborough, Massachusetts, he was quarterback of the football team and captain of the hockey team. But shortly before he entered Harvard College in 1937, Nickerson was stricken by polio, seemingly ending what had started out to be a promising athletic career. For two years, he was forced to wear his right arm in a brace held out from his body. While at Harvard, Nickerson showed unusual perseverance by teaching himself to play squash with his left hand. Ultimately he was named the squash team's captain and its ranking player. Harvard's athletic director, William Bingham, wrote to another Harvard graduate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, about the courage of this young squash player. President Roosevelt answered Bingham's letter saying "What we need are more Nickersons." Bingham sent a copy of the President's letter to Eugene's father, Hoffman Nickerson. The letter was kept in a box for years until Eugene's wife, Marie-Louise, took it out to read to their daughters. In 1943, he graduated from Columbia University Law School, where he was an editor of the Columbia Law Review. Following graduation, he clerked for Judge Augustus Noble Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then for Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone of the U.S. Supreme Court from October 1944 to April 1946.
He worked for Wall Street law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hope, Hadley & McCloy, then Hale, Stimson, Russell & Nickerson. From 1970 until his appointment to the bench in October 1977, Nickerson was a name partner and litigator with the firm Nickerson, Kramer, Lowenstein, Nessen, Kamin & Soll, now known as Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. Entering politics, he became the first Democrat to win a countywide seat in Nassau since 1912, when regular Republicans and the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party split the Republican vote. In his three three-year terms as county executive, Nickerson took a more liberal approach than his Republican predecessors, often working to expand social services for the needy in what was then one of the nation's fastest-growing counties. He was an early advocate of environmental protection, expanded Nassau County's park system, recruited college graduates for the police force, and favored progressive zoning regulations to open up housing opportunities to minorities and the poor.
He later described his years in the post as reorienting "government to concern itself with human beings and their problems." Pressed by Robert F. Kennedy, who recognized Nickerson's political talents, he ran for the United States Senate in 1968 but lost in the Democratic primary.
The patrician Nickerson was occasionally seen as an unusual member of the Democratic Party. Referring to the man who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, Nickerson once explained, "Adlai Stevenson turned me into a Democrat. I was active in his first campaign, and I stayed active. He brought in other people like myself who had intense interests about government, of ideals and principles."
On August 16, 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Judge Nickerson to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 20, 1977. According to legal scholars, he showed law-and-order sternness when handling criminal cases while often exhibiting a liberal impulse in civil cases.
In 24 years on the federal bench at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, Judge Nickerson presided over a 1987 trial in which John Gotti, head of the Gambino Mafia family, was acquitted. In 1986 he dismissed claims by another Mafiaso, Vincent Gigante, that he was not mentally competent – a ruling that led eventually to Gigante’s conviction. In a 1983 ruling he abandoned Supreme Court precedent and barred prosecutors from using their peremptory challenges to oust jurors solely on the basis of race. His reasoning ultimately helped persuade the Supreme Court to stop allowing jurors to be removed on the basis of race.
In 1990, he castigated New York public school officials when he learned that they had dragged their feet for years in establishing an adequate education program for the city's 116,000 handicapped schoolchildren.
In a hotly contested 1995 decision, Able v. United States, he struck down the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Calling the policy a violation of free speech, Judge Nickerson wrote, "Hitler taught the world what could happen when the government began to target people not for what they had done but because of their status." A year later, a three-judge federal appeals panel in New York sent the case back to him, directing him to assess the constitutionality of the Pentagon's ban on homosexual activity.
In 1997, in a later proceeding in the same case, he again struck down the Pentagon's policy, but this time on the ground of equal protection. Rejecting the military's argument that prohibiting homosexual conduct was needed to maintain unit cohesion, he wrote, "It is hard to imagine why the mere holding of hands off base and in private is dangerous to the mission of the armed forces if done by a homosexual but not if done by a heterosexual." Showing his civil libertarian bent, he added, "It is not within our constitutional tradition for our government to designate members of one societal group as pariahs." But the following year a three-judge appeals court overruled Nickerson and upheld the military's ban on homosexual activity and "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Saying that "courts are ill suited to second-guess military judgments," the appellate panel ruled that the Pentagon's policy did not violate constitutional rights because of the special circumstances of the military.
On August 26, 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Nickerson to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to replace Judge Murray Gurfein, who had died in 1979. However, given that the nomination occurred after the unofficial Thurmond Rule governing judicial nominations during presidential election years, the Senate never took up Nickerson's nomination. President Ronald Reagan chose instead to nominate Lawrence W. Pierce to the seat in September 1981. Pierce was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in November 1981.
Eugene Nickerson died January 1, 2002 in New York City, following complications after stomach surgery.