The following are edited remarks by Southern District Judge Jed S. Rakoff at the 2010 presentation of the New York City Bar’s Henry L. Stimson Medals to Outstanding Assistant U.S. Attorneys on June 10, 2010.

I am deeply honored to have been asked to speak in connection with this year’s awarding of the Henry L. Stimson medal to four outstanding representatives of two very great offices: the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Eastern and Southern districts of New York. I had the privilege of serving for more than seven years in the Southern District of New York and they were unquestionably among the very best years of my life. But as the saying goes, “You can’t go home again.”

Henry L. Stimson not only was a senior partner at a major New York firm that bore his name and a prominent leader of the New York bar and this association, but also held a rarely-matched collection of very major governmental posts, including U.S. Secretary of State, Governor General of the Philippines, and not once but twice, U.S. Secretary of War. Although a Republican, he was appointed to his second term as Secretary of War by Franklin Roosevelt, and he served in that capacity throughout the entire war and into the start of the Truman administration. It was Henry Stimson who, along with George C. Marshall, was the overall architect of U.S. engagement in World War II, and it was Henry Stimson who, for better or worse, oversaw the development of the atomic bomb.

It is a sad commentary on the collective historical amnesia of the American people that few Americans outside this association now remember this highly-influential, dedicated, patriotic and very important public figure.

But Henry Stimson’s first important public service came about in late 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt appointed him as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. Prior to that time, most U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, including the Southern District of New York, were all too commonly staffed by political hacks. Stimson changed all that, at least for the Southern District. As Stimson’s biographer has written, Stimson’s “key move was to introduce to public service the practice … of hiring bright young law-school graduates for very low wages, counting on their ambition and willingness to learn to get excellent work out of them.”

You might say that he took an office filled with worldly, practical people and turned it over to a bunch of kids. But what a bunch of kids! In my chambers there hangs a photo of Henry Stimson and his AUSAs in 1909. The photo was given to me and every other assistant by the first of the three great U.S. attorney’s under whom I served, Mike Seymour, the uncle of Sam Seymour, the current president of the New York City Bar. The photo shows 16 mostly-fresh-faced assistants, of whom the one whose name you would immediately recognize is Felix Frankfurter, a couple of years out of Harvard Law School but still looking very Lower East Side. But if you google the other names, you will find that a fair number of them went on to found some of the most prominent and respected New York law firms and that still more of them served as major leaders of the New York bar. If there ever was a class of lawyer-statesmen, it was this class of 1909.

Like Henry Stimson, the U.S. Attorneys for the Southern and Eastern districts of New York continue to this day to recruit from the ranks of the inexperienced. Yes, these new assistants are also brilliant and talented, but the same could be said of Atilla the Hun or Jack the Ripper. How is it that a group of bright but inexperienced kids can achieve so much good?

It is due to the traditions of integrity and excellence that now so infuse these offices and that mold this raw talent into a force for justice. And it may fairly be said that it was Henry L. Stimson who, directly in the case of the Southern District and indirectly through example in the case of the Eastern District, created and fostered these traditions and made these offices, in a very real sense, what they are today.

Of all the fine traditions of which these two great offices partake, perhaps the most important is their tradition of frank and fearless honesty: honesty with the courts, honesty with their adversaries, and, perhaps most importantly of all, honesty in evaluating the evidence before them. It takes honesty and courage to follow where, and only where, the evidence leads, regardless of public opinion, personal beliefs, sheer exhaustion or anything else but the pursuit of the truth.

And never was this need for total honesty more essential than today, when the power of every AUSA is perhaps greater than it has ever been in history. In an era when fewer than 5 percent of cases, civil or criminal, go to trial, and when sentencing is substantially a product of charging decisions, justice is very largely determined by what AUSAs decide in the privacy of their offices. It is an awesome responsibility, but the four AUSAs whom we honor today show just how well that responsibility is being fulfilled.

In that regard, I can not help but inject a word of caution.

Just as Henry Stimson was so quickly able to transform a politicized U.S. attorney’s office into an office of integrity, so, conversely, we have witnessed in our own lifetimes examples of how quickly supposedly meritocratic institutions like Central Justice (that is, the Department of Justice in Washington) can be re-politicized, with disastrous results.

U.S. attorneys are themselves political appointees and often have political ambitions, but for many years now the U.S. attorneys for the Southern and Eastern districts, including the very excellent current incumbents, have understood that they would lose the respect of their assistants, betray their own values, and fail the test of history if they were ever to let their ambitions influence their decisions.

AUSAs also have ambitions, less political perhaps, more diffuse, but real ambitions nonetheless. Those ambitions can, and so often have, driven them to excellence in the performance of their duties. But such ambitions can also present temptations—temptations to bring cases that should not be brought, temptations to overlook weaknesses in proof or flaws in legal theory—dangers as to which conscientious AUSAs must always be on guard.

What most guards young AUSAs from succumbing to such temptations is the example set by their immediate superiors and mentors, who, by their own actions, convey to any AUSA who is tempted to cut corners or overreach that “that is not the way we do things here.” And there are no better mentors, no greater exemplars of the qualities of honesty and integrity necessary to maintain the cause of true justice than the four AUSAs we honor here today. For their leadership and guidance, we all must be truly grateful.

The honorees were Southern District Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Raskin and Sean Chance Cenawood; and Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sandra L. Levy, and Marshall Mitchell

Jed S. Rakoff, a former federal prosecutor and partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, is a judge in the Southern District of New York.