Constitution Law Day speaker discusses his book on cold-war era judge


A number of conference panelists and moderators posed outside the courtroom during a break.

Martin Siegel and Professor Tracy Thomas

The 2023 Constitution Day Lecture on Sept. 12 featured author Martin J. Siegel talking about his new book, Judgment and Mercy: The Turbulent Life and Times of the Judge Who Condemned the Rosenbergs.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were a young American married couple convicted of providing nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviet Union in a famous Cold War-era trial. The 1951 trial was presided over by the recently confirmed, brilliant and young federal district court judge Irving Robert Kaufman, who sentenced the Rosenbergs to death.

Siegel clerked for Kaufman during the last six months of the judge’s life and 40 years on the appellate bench. The clerkship began shortly after Siegel graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. He then served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and a staffer on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. He now practices law in Houston and teaches American Legal History at the University of Houston Law Center, where he also directs the Appellate Civil Rights Clinic. He told the Akron Law audience he started writing the book in 1994.

Siegel began the lecture by reading the book’s prologue. This was followed by a discussion and question-and-answer session moderated by Professor Tracy Thomas, John F. Seiberling Chair of Constitutional Law and director of the Constitutional Law Center.

U.S. public opinion at the time was that the Rosenbergs got what they deserved, and Kaufman was hailed as a hero, Siegel said. But beginning in the 1970s, Kaufman became widely reviled amidst allegations—and some evidence—that he had conspired with the government in a “frame-up.”

Kaufman had maneuvered to have the case heard in his courtroom because he knew it would prove historic. He had a passion for publicity. He ended up living the rest of his life on the defensive, perpetually under siege, threats and denouncement. Fifty years after the trial, a few septuagenarians “still hated the man enough to find and infiltrate his funeral and hound him one last time, literally into the grave,” Siegal reported.

What the haters seemed to have missed was that in the years that followed the Rosenbergs trial, their bete noir became one of the most liberal jurists of his time. He was the first federal judge to desegregate a northern school. Among his decisions after being elevated to the appellate bench, he upheld the right of conscientious objectors to avoid military service in Vietnam and championed the press and free speech in both the Pentagon Papers case and a landmark libel case against 60 Minutes. “His support for individual rights and civil liberties made him an unlikely partisan for dissidents and outcasts,” Siegel wrote.

Siegel told the audience that he doesn’t agree with the view that Kaufman changed his stripes to atone for the Rosenbergs’ death sentence or simply to remain in tune with the changing times. “I think the liberalism was always there,” he said.

“Our students study constitutional law, but the courses typically don’t get into the historical narrative and the personalities behind decisions that have shaped our Constitution,” Thomas said. “Hearing from speakers like Martin Siegel provides students with a different perspective.”