Robert Morgenthau's commitment to public service may have been inspired when in World War II, while serving in the U.S. Navy and commanding a destroyer in the Mediterranean, the ship was blown out from under him and he was left bobbing in the vast sea. Contemplating his likely demise, Robert Morgenthau made a pact with someone upstairs that if he came out alive he would devote his career to public service. What a boon to all of us that he was pulled out of the water and was able to fulfill that promise.
His public service commenced in 1961 when he was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He brought to that office shrewd instincts, tenacity and an ambition to bring hard and significant cases. The Southern District has always had a great reputation of fine lawyers and high ethical standards, but the innovation that Robert Morgenthau established in that office was in creating special investigative units to dig into major crimes.
He would frequently give personal attention to many of these inquiries and his resourceful imagination would help guide and supervise the investigations. He constantly suggested new initiatives—particularly in the areas of security fraud and organized crime—and those units have now become the model for many prosecuting offices.
When he was the U.S. Attorney, Robert Morgenthau counseled those who served with him to know the importance of public service and to make the commitment to see that the public was advised and protected.
Political events forced him to relinquish that office and he decided to run for governor of New York. While that effort failed, his vow for public service remained. Fortunately that career resumed when he received an overwhelming vote to be elected Manhattan's district attorney.
In that position he was known as "The Boss" and he undertook a bold and dramatic reorganization of that office. The program he introduced was one of vertical integration, so that an assistant would take the case all the way from preliminary hearing through grand jury and trial. The effect of this change was that the efficiency and quality of case preparation has tremendously improved.
Under "The Boss," over 2,000 assistant district attorneys received training and the office made significant progress in taking on street crime, political corruption, corporate crime, international swindles and arms dealing.
In reviewing his career, people should remember that Robert Morgenthau also found time to do important charitable service. For over 40 years he has been the president, and later chairman, of the Police Athletic League. Under his leadership, the Police Athletic League's budget increased enormously and it has been successful in providing young inner city children with moral support, cultural programs, athletic activities and the hope of a better tomorrow.
Robert Morgenthau was also a major force in the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is a museum of Jewish history and a memorial to those lost in the Holocaust. He has served as chairman of that esteemed institution since its inception.
After he left the district attorney's office, he became counsel at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, where he continues his legal career, and also speaks and writes on issues of current importance—such as immigration and protecting the rights of veterans.
While serving in both of the offices he led, Robert Morgenthau demonstrated integrity and courage to do what he knows is right even when it takes admitting mistakes or antagonizing powerful officials but always seeking to protect the public interest. Combined with his tenure as U.S. Attorney, and serving as district attorney for 35 years—I believe Robert Morgenthau is the longest serving criminal prosecutor in our history.
Robert Morgenthau has been a model of dynamic innovation, insatiable curiosity, unimpeachable integrity and unstoppable determination. His kind of courage is critical to one who wields the awesome power of criminal prosecution.
Robert Morgenthau will be revered in our history as our country's foremost prosecutor.
Stephen Kaufman practices in the firm of Steven E. Kaufman, P.C.