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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

RIP, Nicholas Katzenbach

Surely lost among some other matters hitting the web today is the news that former Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach died yesterday at age 90.  Katzenbach served in high government positions throughout the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, first as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, then as Deputy Attorney General (replacing Byron White when he was appointed to the Supreme Court), then as Attorney General (replacing Robert F. Kennedy when he resigned to run for Senate), then as Undersecretary of State.  These jobs put him in the middle of the most important events in American politics in the 1960s, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.  

Let me just mention Katzenbach's contributions to civil rights.  To law students, Katzenbach is most famous as the defendant in the key cases upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Katzenbach v. McClung) and the Voting Rights Act (South Carolina v. Katzenbach; Katzenbach v. Morgan).  And as Deputy AG and then AG, he played a crucial role in drafting and securing passage of those laws.  But he is probably most widely remembered by the general public for confronting Governor George Wallace at the "schoolhouse door" of the University of Alabama when, as Deputy AG, Katzenbach personally escorted Vivian Malone and James Hood to register as the first black students at the University of Alabama.

I had the opportunity to meet Katzenbach only once, when my wife served on a blue-ribbon commission he chaired.  Even then, in his advanced years, he towered over everyone -- in size and in any other way you could think of.  We met a week before I argued a case in the Supreme Court on the scope of Congress's power to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments -- the key issue in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, which he had argued pro se in the Supreme Court.  He warmly shared his reminiscences of his argument in that case and wished me luck, and he made me feel like I was, in a very small way, carrying on his work.

Nicholas Katzenbach was a great American.  I highly recommend his memoir of his time in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Some of It Was Fun, which gives great behind-the-scenes accounts of his civil rights work, the relationship between the Kennedys and Johnson (and J. Edgar Hoover), and the efforts by some members of the Johnson Administration to raise questions about the Vietnam War.  His life set an example of public service and public spiritedness to which we should all aspire.

Posted by Sam Bagenstos on May 9, 2012 at 08:18 PM | Permalink


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An interesting further note about the power of families, NdbK's mom was a delegate the 1947 New Jersey constitutional convention and was responsible for the equal rights language that covers gender

Posted by: Roger Dennis | May 11, 2012 10:44:43 AM

I find it interesting that the tributes tend to skip over his years as General Counsel at IBM. So far as I know, he was the first of the superstar general counsels, and having a former AG of his magnitude in-house as opposed to heading a law firm certainly played a role in reframing the role of inside counsel.

Posted by: Ray Campbell | May 11, 2012 6:40:51 AM

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