A giant of New York politics and law enforcement recently retired from public office– Robert Morgenthau. Scion to a powerful family, Robert Morgenthau’s grandfather served as United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and his father was Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While his famous name and lineage may have helped to open doors, Robert Morgenthau was determined to find a profession where he could navigate his own path in life.
After honorable combat service in the navy during World War 2, where his ship was torpedoed, Robert Morgenthau proceeded to law school and rose to partner in a major law firm. However, Robert Morgenthau largely dedicated his professional career, and indeed his life, to public service. He served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York for an eight year period from 1961 -1969. But he will surely best be remembered for his longstanding and legendary tenure as New York County District Attorney that spanned a thirty-five year period from 1974 – 2009. In this latter capacity, he resuscitated the office which was ravaged by budget problems and made it, what many law enforcement officials consider, the finest district attorney’s office in the nation and possibly the best overall law enforcement office in the nation.
Robert Morgenthau certainly accomplished much in his professional life. Many noteworthy prosecutions and convictions were won by his office, and staff members consisted of many notable figures ranging from John F. Kennedy, Jr to Linda Fairstein to Eliot Spitzer to Andrew Cuomo. Indeed, many rose to higher positions in government and the private sector. Most people would consider it amazing to continue effectively working until the age of ninety as Robert Morgenthau did. Nonetheless it is even more amazing that Robert Morgenthau does not plan to retire but intends to open an office to remain active in retirement. This is truly a model we should all hope to be able to emulate.
Those interested in learning more about his life and accomplishments can find much information on the web and elsewhere. One of possible statring point for an overview is: Real Life “Law and Order” DA Robert Morgenthau Retirees at 90.
On a personal note, I did not know Robert Morgenthau well. However, many years ago, Justice Murphy, then Presiding Justice of the New York Appellate Division, First Department, introduced us at a social function, and we chatted briefly. Working in the same building where the New York Supreme Court (Criminal Term), New York County Criminal Court, and New York County District Attorney Office share space at 100 Centre Street, I would occasionally see Robert Morgenthau on an elevator. He always made time to say hello, trade small talk, and ask how business was even though he was involved in steering a large office with many high level prosecutions and complex organizational issues. This repeated kindness over the years to an acquaintance met in passing demonstrates another dimension of Robert Morgenthau that is not well known by the public. However, I saw it many times over the years we worked in the same building. No longer will we sometimes share the same elevator. The torch has been passed to a new district attorney: Cyrus Vance. Yet, I certainly wish Mr. Morgenthau all the best in his future endeavors and, indeed, his working retirement.
______________________________ * Principal Law Librarian, New York Supreme Court Criminal Term Library, New York County. He would also like to thank Theodore Pollack, Senior Law Librarian, New York County Public Access Law Library for his assistance.