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Judgment and Mercy: The Turbulent Life and Times of the Judge Who Condemned the Rosenbergs

Book Reviews

Judgment and MercyFull of rich content, Judgment and Mercy presents an illuminating biography of Judge Irving Robert Kaufman. Author and attorney Martin J. Siegel — one of Kaufman’s last law clerks before his 1992 passing — shares a riveting account of the judge who in 1951 notoriously condemned Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death for stealing secrets about the atomic bomb and then sharing with enemy Soviet Joseph Stalin. Prefacing his opus with a fascinating prologue, Siegel draws you in, whether Kaufman was on your judicial idol list or not.

The case, which made Kaufman famous after only 16 months on the bench, haunted him to the grave. With thorough research, Siegel takes readers behind the headlines of the infamous Rosenberg executions to uncover and discover the multi-dimensional man and judge. Despite the case for which he was renowned, Kaufman became a progressive jurist who contributed much to our jurisprudence over 43 years in office throughout an evolutionary time in history. He was the first federal judge to desegregate a school north of Dixie. As Siegel aptly summarized, Kaufman also “modernized the insanity defense, improved juvenile justice, reformed Attica-era prisons, and shielded conscientious objectors from the jungles of Vietnam,. . . permitted victims to bring their foreign torturers to justice in American courtrooms, [and] championed the press and free speech in the Pentagon Papers case.”

For folks of age during these seminal events, Siegel’s book may prove an interesting supplement to personal recollection and news accounts. Egotistical and determined to a fault, his initials — IRK — were indicative of Kaufman’s unique personality. Siegel recounts the experience of fellow law clerks who bore the brunt of Kaufman’s inferiority complex, which drove a maniacal pursuit for judicial exceptionalism. Unafraid to use his position to his and his “friends’” benefit, Kaufman’s habitual closed-door conclaves, self-interested social and professional climbing, and media-hungry proclivities would not survive today’s judicial conduct reviews or public scrutiny. Judicial accomplishments and the family’s outwardly shiny life aside, Kaufman’s wife and children struggled under his thumb, battling alcoholism and mental-health challenges. Yet, Kaufman was also a representation of the American dream.

The son of Jewish immigrants, he worked exceedingly hard to achieve his goals, graduating from Fordham University School of Law during the Depression. He spent his early career in private practice and as a government lawyer before his initial appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Twelve years later, Kaufman was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, perceived the second most important federal court behind his ultimate target that never came to fruition, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kaufman’s career culminated in his service as the Second Circuit’s chief judge, where he made, perhaps, his most significant contributions in the realm of judicial administration. He was a senior judge until his death. Siegel’s account was historically and legally enlightening.

Lyndsey E. Siara is a member of The Florida Bar.