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In perhaps the most powerful moment in the 1961 film classic, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the American jurist portrayed by Spencer Tracy confronts convicted German Judge Ernst Janning in his cell. Janning, a Teutonic scholar and onetime celebrated liberal played by Burt Lancaster, confesses that he did not realize his disregard for the rule of law would lead to catastrophe. The Tracy character, Judge Dan Haywood, sharply reminds his antagonist that it came to that the very first time he threw a case. That same principle — that the rule of law is an absolute that cannot be suspended or ignored without dire consequences — is at the root of an extraordinary conference that will be held this month at the very site where Adolph Eichmann and an assortment of legal and judicial functionaries devised the “final solution” to the “Jewish question.” Chairing the conference at the Wannsee Villa is former New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler. “The premise of the conference is that the corruption of the rule of law in Nazi Germany provides a relevant lesson to contemporary lawyers and judges,” said Wachtler, who served on the Court of Appeals for 19 years and was chief judge from 1985 to 1992. “When the rule of law fails as a result of a legal establishment unwilling to accept its role and obligation, the tyrant’s success is assured.” In preparing for the conference, Wachtler said he was startled and disturbed to learn that many of the Third Reich’s leaders were legal professionals — intelligent men who should have clearly seen the implications of their policies, but were either blind to or complicit in the evil they were unleashing through their contempt for the rule of law. It is that paradox that the conference will explore. Wachtler said the conference, which he described as the first of its kind and focus, is designed as a “reminder of how fragile the rule of law can be when threatened by political pressure and the power of the state.” The Wannsee conference was held on Jan. 20, 1942, in an opulent Berlin suburb, where a blue-ribbon committee of 15 high-ranking Nazis convened in a palatial villa and discussed over cognac the logistics of murdering 11 million people. About half of the participants were lawyers. Not one of them objected to the announced policy of transporting Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to extermination camps in Poland. The policy could not have been pursued without the judiciary abandoning the rule of law, which it did. “Judgment at Nuremberg,” a legendary film of judges judging judges, explored a similar issue. In the movie, just as Judge Janning is politically pressured to rule for the Nazis, Judge Haywood is politically pressured to act leniently toward the German judges. The difference, of course, is that Janning succumbs and Haywood does not. THE WANNSEE SEMINAR The Simon Bond International Wannsee Seminar — “Tyranny, Justice & The Law: The Nazis and Beyond” — is sponsored by Touro Law Center, where Judge Wachtler is a professor of constitutional law, the Free University of Berlin and the Institute on the Holocaust & Law. It includes four days (July 7 through July 10) of seminars on topics ranging from “Law Under the Swastika” to the rule of law in postwar Germany. One panel discussion will explore whether a lawyer or judge should be blamed for cooperating with a tyrannical government if resistance would lead to personal ruin and perhaps death. Among the speakers are: Justice Louise Arbour of the Supreme Court of Canada; Justice Gabriel Bach, an Eichmann prosecutor who now serves on the Israeli Supreme Court; Touro University President Bernard Lander; and Professor Christian Tomuschat of Berlin’s Humboldt University. Underwriting the seminar is the Estate of Simon Bond. Sponsors include several members of Judge Wachtler’s family: his wife, Joan; his brother, Morton; and Wachtler’s son’s in-laws, Fred and Judy Wilpon. Wilpon is the owner of the New York Mets baseball team. Coincidentally, the New York State Bar Association last week adopted a resolution urging the Bush administration to “maintain the rule of law and the delicate constitutional balance of protecting national security and civil liberties” in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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