Justice  /  Book Review

Not How He Wanted to Be Remembered

Two decades passed before the ghosts of the Rosenbergs came back to haunt Irving Kaufman, the judge who sentenced them to death.

Siegel was one of Kaufman’s two law clerks during the last months of his life. The clerks, both Harvard Law School graduates, began work in the summer of 1991 and didn’t know that their boss was dying of pancreatic cancer. By the end of the year, he had stopped coming to his chambers. He died a few weeks into the new year.

As a result, Siegel, a former federal prosecutor who now practices law in Houston, scarcely knew Kaufman. His book is no personal reminiscence, no awestruck account of a year in service to a judicial giant. It is, rather, a meticulous and unsentimental inquiry aimed at solving the mystery at the heart of Kaufman’s career: the obvious disconnect between the years leading up to the Rosenberg sentence and the many years that followed.

Kaufman initially gave every sign of wanting to be the federal government’s best friend. Early in his career he served as an assistant United States attorney and won some fame as a crime fighter; his departure from the prosecutor’s office after five years to set up his own law firm was noted in all the New York City newspapers, unusually for a mere assistant. He conducted a correspondence with the FBI director that bordered on sycophancy, writing to Hoover in 1949—the year he became a federal district judge—that “in my opinion, you are the greatest public servant of our time.” Roy Cohn, one of the prosecutors in the Rosenberg case, was a friend. Before and even during the trial, Kaufman was in frequent contact with Cohn and other government lawyers, a shocking breach of judicial ethics that proved deeply embarrassing years later, when it was revealed in FBI memos in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Rosenbergs’ grown sons.

But then a different Judge Kaufman emerged. Beginning during his remaining years on the district court and accelerating after President John F. Kennedy named him to the Second Circuit in 1961, his rulings became notably liberal. The government was often a loser in his courtroom. He issued decisions on behalf of immigrants, prisoners, and Vietnam War protesters and draft resisters. In 1972 he ruled in favor of two public school teachers who had been fired for their silent classroom protests against the war; one, a Quaker, had worn a black armband, and the other had refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Kaufman wrote:

To compel a person to speak what is not in his mind offends the very principles of tolerance and understanding which for so long have been the foundation of our great land.