A new book about the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark and his son, Ramsey, the former U.S. attorney general, sheds new light on an extraordinary pair of lawyers who had a long-term impact on the law in the 20th century.
Father, Son and Constitution, published by the University of Kansas Press, is by Alexander Wohl, a former Supreme Court judicial fellow now an adjunct professor at American University Washington College of Law.
The book, coupled with a 2010 biography of Justice Clark by his daughter Mimi Gronlund, has drawn new attention to a justice who served between 1949 and 1967 and has been under-appreciated, in the view of some historians. Between 1945 and 1949, Tom Clark served under President Harry Truman as attorney general, the position his son held from 1967 to 1969.
Wohl said he was struck by the strong bond between the moderate justice and his son Ramsey, now 85, who in recent years has espoused radical causes and represented the likes of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. “Those differences did little to interfere with their strong father-son bond and in some ways even strengthened their relationship as they learned from each other,” said Wohl in a recent interview. The transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity, follows:
Mauro: Why did you take the approach of writing about both father and son in the same book?
Wohl: The idea first came to me when I learned that Tom Clark had given up his seat as an active justice on the Supreme Court, a potentially lifetime position with incredible influence, when his son became attorney general, a political position with limited job security. I found that act of selflessness intriguing — and not just because it was not legally required. In fact, Ramsey Clark had been serving as acting attorney general for some time and had been deputy and assistant attorney general before that while his father was on the court, with few conflicts of interest. But my interest in a dual biography became even more appealing as I discovered more about their differences in ideology and personality, and how those differences did little to interfere with their strong father-son bond and in some ways even strengthened their relationship as they learned from each other.
Mauro: What role did Tom Clark play on the Supreme Court? Do you agree with the late historian Bernard Schwartz that he was the most underrated justice of all time?
Wohl: I think Schwartz’s insightful comment demonstrates that he understood that there was more to Clark than most people have given him credit for — intellectually, politically and in other ways. After several years serving alongside and voting in lockstep with Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Clark could easily have become, like his colleague John Marshall Harlan, another Great Dissenter of the Warren Court. Like Harlan, Clark was an advocate of judicial restraint. This, combined with his background in law enforcement and prosecution, might have led Clark to oppose the efforts of the Warren Court majority for the next 13 years. But thanks to his fierce sense of the Constitution and the values it represents, his gregariousness and his strong sense of self and ability to evolve in his thinking, he did not, instead playing an important and often influential role.
Mauro: After his role in the Japanese internment program in World War II, Tom Clark as a justice has a fairly strong civil rights record. Was he perhaps atoning for his World War II days?
Wohl: I don’t think the two are directly connected, but represent his changes as he matured, both as an individual and a public official. Clark’s commitment to civil rights was — much like that of the man for whom he worked, Harry Truman — based on a moral sensibility of equality, fairness and the power of the law, combined with an appreciation of people. This helped each man overcome his own family history of racial intolerance.
It’s worth noting that while Clark helped plan the selection of locations for the Japanese internment camps, Clark already had returned to Washington when that unfortunate program got underway, and he was not directly involved in its execution. That being said, he did help lay the groundwork for it by working closely with the military to designate certain areas as “prohibited” and to assist in the identification and evacuation of Japanese Americans from those areas, as well as to investigate allegations his office received of alleged subversion and spying by members of that community.
In later years, Clark publicly acknowledged the unconstitutionality and misguided nature of the evacuation and internment, as well as apologizing for his role in it, although he continued to defend some aspects of his work as critical to protecting members of that community from physical violence.
Mauro: Some have said that Lyndon Johnson appointed Ramsey Clark as attorney general mainly to force Tom Clark off the court so he could appoint Thurgood Marshall. You have a different take on that. What is your view?
Wohl: This is one of those instances of history where the evidence tells different stories, but these stories are necessarily contradictory. Start with the fact that Ramsey Clark was appointed assistant attorney general by Robert Kennedy when John Kennedy was president. Clark was very successful, and became a friend as well as a colleague of Robert Kennedy. Later, when he was promoted to deputy attorney general and then acting attorney general, following Nicholas Katzenbach in each of those jobs, Clark became a close adviser to then-President Johnson on many issues, including judicial nominations. As such he was a natural candidate for attorney general.
Johnson, who was always manipulating the people around him like dominoes in order to achieve his often hidden goals, was operating independently. There is little question that LBJ wanted to nominate the first African-American justice, but he didn’t have a vacancy. (Ironically, it was Ramsey Clark who originally helped bring Thurgood Marshall to Johnson’s attention and get him nominated to the Second Circuit.). There is also little question that Johnson believed he could convince Tom Clark, an old and close friend, to step down from the Court.
That proved unnecessary, however. When it became clear that Ramsey Clark was a potential nominee to be attorney general, his father, unprompted, sent a private note to Chief Justice Warren saying he would step down if Ramsey were nominated. So this was really the case of Johnson not needing to use his extraordinary ability to manipulate others to get what he wanted. There is nothing to indicate Johnson selected Ramsey Clark to force his father’s hand.
Mauro: What do you think moved Ramsey Clark to take on such quixotic causes and controversial clients after leaving the Justice Department?
Wohl: Ramsey Clark’s evolution to his current role as the defender of notorious clients like Saddam Hussein was a gradual one. His first project after leaving the Justice Department was to write a book, Crime in America: Observations About on its Nature, Causes, Prevention and Control, which focused on various intersections of the legal system and social issues that were close to his heart, including poverty, the role of police and the death penalty.
He then joined a major law firm and began to represent a host of clients in cases against the government. These included land claims by Native Alaskan tribes; FOIA claims filed on behalf of several members of Congress who were seeking information about nuclear tests, and still other defenses of individuals Clark called “victims of politically motivated prosecutions,” such as Father Phillip Berrigan, a radical Catholic priest who was the leader of a group of anti-war activists; Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist: and Frank Serpico, the New York police detective whose life was threatened when he exposed police force corruption.
I would argue that the actions he took in these years were consistent with much of his work as a government official. But, clearly, his freedom from the restrictions of government and politics encouraged his increasing outspokenness on legal and social issues. His client base expanded and radicalized during the 1980s, as it grew to include not just individuals being prosecuted by the U.S. government, but representatives of governments that were opposed to the United States itself.
The reason he took on these client, he says, is because they were victims of overwhelming U.S. power and legal machinery and he wanted to provide them with representation to help equalize the power and to prevent a legal trial from becoming a political one. I also think his growing involvement in this area was due in part to his general hostility to war and death.
Mauro: Justice Clark lived to see some but not all of his son’s more radical activities before dying in 1977. What did Tom Clark think of his son’s radicalization, and what would he think of his son today?
Wohl: Tom Clark was extraordinarily proud of his son throughout their lives. Not only did he never regret giving up his seat on the court for what became Ramsey’s two-year stint as attorney general, he also never distanced himself from his son’s politics or legal activities. He did the opposite. During the 1970s, first when Ramsey was being attacked by J. Edgar Hoover, and later, when old friends would confront Tom Clark about his son’s choice of clients and associations, the elder Clark vigorously defended his son, even against his old friend and colleague Hoover.
At one point, in the early 1970s, when Ramsey had returned from a controversial trip to North Vietnam, someone approached Tom Clark at an American Bar Association meeting and asked him if he was ashamed of Ramsey’s activities. To which Justice Clark responded that he had never been more proud of his son. If Tom Clark were alive today, there is no reason to think his views about and support for his son’s work would have changed at all.
Contact Tony Mauro at firstname.lastname@example.org.