Nicholas Katzenbach on the Judicial System

Question: What damage has been done to our judicial system?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Well, the specifics of what I didn’t like in the administration? I didn’t like the way they were treating people in the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I thought that the Guantanamo business was really outrageous. I may have felt that way in part because I was a former prison of war. I spent 27 months in a German prison camp. Nobody treated me in that German prison camp in anything like the fashion that we were treating people at Guantanamo, and I was ashamed of that. These were Nazi Germans, and here we were treating people worse than them. And I was proud of the Department of Justice, where I worked with Bobby Kennedy, whom I loved, and what I think was a great department, and the idea of making the administration of justice political is just more than I could stand. And I think that the third and important reason for wanting to write the book and for writing it was to try to tell young people that it did not have to be the way it is today, that there is nothing more satisfying, in my view, than working with others in the government to accomplish things that you want to accomplish for people and to do it in a non partisan way, because it’s right to do, not because it’s politically advantageous to do it.

Question: What should the president do about it?

Nicholas Katzenbach: As far as the justice system is concerned, I think that the main thing that he needs to do is to appoint an Attorney General who has stature and who will depoliticize the administration of justice. I think he needs to make that person his adviser and to follow that advice. I think he needs to close Guantanamo and I think he needs to do what a good leader can do, and that is to try to lead by persuasion rather than by fire. That’s difficult, but I think it can be done and the point is the major accomplishments that we have made in our history have all been made not for purposes of one political party or the other but made because there were people in government of a stature and belief who wanted to do what’s right for all of the people.

Question: How do you characterize where today’s judiciary is?

Nicholas Katzenbach: When I was in the administration, the justices or the judges are essentially picked by the senator from your own party, if there was one, and all that we could do is what the Republicans had done before us in the Eisenhower administration and that was to set standards of qualification for those people. But I think that what you didn’t want was people who were partisan in their views or who would stretch the law for any kind of political purpose, or, really, do anything political. Once you went on the bench, you are non political and that was the end of it. You may have worked in politics to get there, but once you’re there, you’re there for everybody, not for one group of people. I think it’s perfectly natural for the president who is appointing Supreme Court justices to want to appoint somebody who he thinks is extremely highly qualified and whom he thinks is basically sympathetic to the beliefs that he has. I don’t think it’s necessary to interview people, to ask people questions to do that. I think you can know who those people are. There’re always a short list of those people who are qualified and it’s important for the president to remember that an appointment of that kind will go on for 20 or 30 years, and what you’re looking for is somebody who has the intellect, the competence, the devotion to law and the lack of ego to be able to make decisions that are in accordance with the Constitution in the fairest way he can and in a collegial way, with his 8 colleagues.

Question: Where would you find the next Attorney General?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I don’t really… I really wouldn’t want to say. I think there’s a number… I would probably appoint, if I were president, a very well known Court of Appeals judge who had a reputation, non partisan, non political reputation, to straighten out the department, and I would try to get somebody of a relatively younger age so that he could contemplate, or she, the possibility of going from the Attorney General’s job to the Supreme Court if a vacancy should occur. That should be the kind of motivation that you would want because it will keep you non partisan.


Recorded on: 10/22/2008




Katzenbach describes why the past eight years have been horrible for justice in the United States and what the next President can do about it.

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