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Irving R. Kaufman

(1910 – 1992)

Irving R. Kaufman was a U.S. judge who presided over the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Born in New York City, Kaufman was educated at Fordham University, graduating from Fordham Law School in 1931 at the age of 20. He worked in the law offices of Louis Rosenberg (who was not related to Julius Rosenberg), and afterward as an assistant United States attorney. In 1949 he was appointed a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. Kaufman was chief judge of the Manhattan circuit court for seven years, from 1973 to 1980. Formally retiring in 1987, he was designated a senior judge and remained active on the court until the illness that preceded his death in 1992.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Much to Kaufman’s frustration, his reputation was forever linked to the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. The Rosenbergs, charged with espionage for conspiring to deliver nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, were found guilty. On April 5, 1951, Kaufman sentenced them to death in the electric chair, calling their crime “worse than murder.”

Despite a worldwide campaign on their behalf, seven appeals of the verdict were denied, and two pleas for executive clemency (first to President Harry S. Truman in 1952 and then to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953) were dismissed. On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs became the first American civilians to be put to death for espionage in the United States.

Even after their death, debate about the case continued. Some contended that the conviction and sentence were influenced by the wave of anti-Communism fostered by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) documents released in the 1970s disclosed that Judge Kaufman had conducted private discussions about the sentence with the prosecution and that he had called the FBI to request that the executions be expedited. Though discussions with one side in a case under trial are usually considered a violation of judicial ethics, a subcommittee of the American Bar Association exonerated Kaufman, reporting that the FBI memos did not cast doubt on the propriety of the proceedings or the judge’s conduct.

Kaufman’s subsequent judicial career was marked by liberal rulings. Kaufman issued the first judicial order to desegregate an elementary school in the North in Taylor v. Board of Education (1961). In 1971, he was the lone dissenter in the case of United States v. The New York Times, when the court ruled not to allow publication of the Pentagon Papers; the Supreme Court later overturned that ruling. Many of his decisions involved First Amendment rights, including Edwards v. The National Audubon Society (1977), Herbert v. Lando (1977), and Reeves v. ABC (1983). His widely cited decision in Berkey v. Kodak (1979) is considered a landmark in antitrust law.

In 1983, Kaufman was appointed chairman of the President’s Commission on Organized Crime, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Roger Higgins, photographer from New York World-Telegram and the Sun, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.