Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Q&A with Martin J. Siegel




Martin J. Siegel is the author of the new book Judgment and Mercy: The Turbulent Life and Times of the Judge Who Condemned the Rosenbergs. The book focuses on the life of Judge Irving Kaufman (1910-1992). Siegel practices law in Houston and teaches at the University of Houston Law Center.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Judge Irving Kaufman?


A: Since clerking for him in 1991-92, I’ve just always found him to be a fascinating character – a compelling mix of good and bad that adds up to a really intriguing person and story.


People who are overwhelmingly good or overwhelmingly bad would be less interesting subjects, I think – it’s the gray that has always really captivated me about both ordinary people and historical figures.


Beyond that, Judge Kaufman is remembered, obviously, for the Rosenberg case, which I cover amply in the book. The death sentences he issued after the 1951 trial became enormously controversial, and there were revelations in the 1970s that he violated judicial ethics by holding secret, ex parte discussions with prosecutors during the trial.


But I didn’t want to write just another Rosenberg book. Several fine ones exist already, though most focus on the couple’s guilt or innocence and the particulars of atomic espionage.


As a lawyer, I wanted to home in on the man who served as judge and assess his performance on the bench – an element largely missing in prior accounts which, with one exception, (Louis Nizer’s The Implosion Conspiracy, 1973) weren’t written by lawyers.


Above all, I wanted to illuminate the rest of Judge Kaufman’s life and career. As a young federal prosecutor in the 1930s, he handled headline-making and, in one instance, truly astonishing cases of fraud that I greatly enjoyed learning and writing about.


Then, as a judge in the decades after the Rosenberg case, he issued rulings in a series of key civil liberties cases involving prison reform, free speech, racial discrimination, immigration, international human rights, and more.


All progressive landmarks in their day despite his reputation as a McCarthyite – which raises the question of how someone so notorious for the Rosenberg death sentences could have written them.


So I wanted to answer that question and show how this later jurisprudence – as well as Kaufman’s often tragic personal life – were influenced by the Rosenberg controversy, which never fully quieted and haunted him to the end. 


Q: How did he end up becoming the judge for the Rosenberg trial, and do you think he had any doubts about his decision?


A: He very much wanted to handle the Rosenberg case because of the opportunities it presented for notoriety and career advancement.


The government’s prosecution of the country’s top Communist Party leaders a few years before the Rosenberg trial had furthered the career of one of Judge Kaufman’s friends and colleagues – Harold Medina, who became nationally known and was quickly promoted to the Court of Appeals – and I believe Kaufman hoped the Rosenberg case would do something similar for him.


As for the “how,” Roy Cohn was a junior member of the government’s prosecution team, and his autobiography recounts how Judge Kaufman, whom he knew personally and was something of an early mentor, repeatedly noodged him to use his connections with the clerk of the court to obtain the assignment.


These days, that kind of back-channel intervention would be difficult to accomplish, but the assignment system then was more opaque and easier to game.


And Judge Kaufman could and did argue to the clerk, through Cohn, that he’d handled a related case a few months earlier: the perjury trial of Abraham Brothman and Miriam Moskowitz, whom prosecutors suspected of being part of the Rosenberg spy ring. 

Far from second-guessing his actions in later years, Judge Kaufman vigorously defended his conduct through surrogates who spoke for him in the public arena.


There were two hints of doubt, however. One came a few months before the Rosenbergs’ executions in June 1953, when evidence suggests Kaufman privately asked President Truman to commute their sentences. The proof of that isn’t unequivocal, but it appears to have happened.


By then Kaufman was under great pressure to reduce the sentences himself, which he declined, but he may have wanted President Truman to take the matter off his hands. That would enable him to preserve his reputation for being tough on communist traitors while avoiding the ugly result of orphaning the Rosenbergs’ two young sons.


The second hint of doubt occurred in 1977, when Judge Kaufman’s own son died suddenly at 39. Kaufman’s clerk at the time told me that the judge sometimes mused aloud in chambers then about whether there was any divine connection between the Rosenberg case and his own personal tragedy.


That was stunning for me to hear, given the judge’s adamant, lifelong stance that he’d acted correctly in the case.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Judge Kaufman’s papers are at the Library of Congress, so I spent a great deal of time there although – frustratingly – his files generally don’t contain notes or memoranda about cases or decisions.


The National Archives and Records Administration maintains the court files of closed federal cases, so I visited their facilities in New York and Kansas City.


I did more limited and usually (but not always) remote research in several other archives with relevant material, such as the presidential libraries, the papers of other judges and politicians, the records of the New York Times at the New York Public Library (Judge Kaufman was close to the publisher and managing editor), and others.


Through the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained thousands of documents about Judge Kaufman from the FBI.


And crucially important were old family files of photos, letters, and other private material maintained by one of Judge Kaufman’s grandsons, who was nice enough to let me take over the basement of his family home for a few days.


Finally, I interviewed approximately 75 people who knew the judge: relatives, lawyers who argued before him, other judges, former law clerks, reporters who covered him, and more.


As for what surprised me, I was stunned to learn he’d changed his name as a young man – a fact that doesn’t appear in any public account and of which his own grandsons, who knew him well, were completely ignorant.


The riveting stories of a couple of those early cases he prosecuted, about which I knew nothing when I began, were also eye-opening.


And, as I say, that story of him wondering aloud about the Rosenberg case in chambers in 1977 really took me aback.


Q: What do you see as Kaufman’s legacy today?


A: Several of the more important civil liberties decisions Judge Kaufman authored continue to resonate today, especially some of the free speech cases and the international human rights decision I mentioned, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala (1980), which permits victims of government abuses in other countries to seek justice in U.S. courts.


Our more conservative Supreme Court has rendered many of his ideas and decisions inoperative in recent decades, but they remain on the books as inspiration, perhaps, for a future, more progressive legal era.


Judge Kaufman also headed important committees that reformed certain areas of the law and judicial administration, and some of those innovations remain in force.


Finally, of course, there’s his tragic and, I argue, misguided decision to sentence the Rosenbergs to death, and the misconduct he committed in conducting ex parte meetings with prosecutors. Unfortunately for his legacy, that case will always remain one of the most important in the history of American law.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: No books for the time being, though I’d love to write another. I’m back to my law practice and adjunct teaching for now, and I’m sure will write the occasional article and op-ed, as I have in the past. But I’d love to return to long-form writing before too long, if possible. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I hope readers find Judge Kaufman and his colorful life and times as engrossing as I have.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment