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National Book Critics Circle



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"reads like a novel ... Siegel paints an exhaustive,

fascinating, and groundbreaking profile ..."

—Sam Roberts, New York Times columnist, author of The Brother

"Siegel's superb biography .... brings Kaufman to

 memorable life"

—David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing

   the Cross and Rising Star: The  Making of Barack Obama

“[A] meticulous and unsentimental inquiry aimed at solving the mystery at the heart of Kaufman’s career…. "

—Linda Greenhouse, New York Review of Books 

"scrupulously fair and continually fascinating"

—Floyd Abrams, First Amendment lawyer, author of 

   The Soul of the First Amendment

"intellectually honest and relentless ... captures Kaufman to a tee."

Burt Neuborne, former National Legal Director, ACLU, founder, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law

"fluid and accomplished ... an engrossing read"

—Jeffrey S. Gurock, author of Jews in Gotham and

   Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University

"compelling ... lucid and graceful prose"

—Deborah Dash Moore, author of GI Jews and

   Professor of History and Judaic Studies, University of Michigan

Watch CBS Saturday Morning's Feature Story on Judgment and Mercy

McCarthyite villain?   Landmark progressive?   Both? 

In 1951, world attention fixed on Judge Irving R. Kaufman's courtroom as its ambitious young occupant stridently blamed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for starting the Korean War by handing the "secret” of the atomic bomb to Joseph Stalin. To many, the harsh sentences and their preening author left an enduring stain on American justice. 

But in Judgment and Mercy, Martin J. Siegel upends this simplistic portrait of Judge Kaufman, showing how his pathbreaking decisions desegregated a Northern school for the first time, liberalized the insanity defense, reformed Attica-era prisons, spared John Lennon from politically motivated deportation, expanded free speech, brought foreign torturers to justice, and more.


Still, the Rosenberg controversy lingered. Decades later, changing times and revelations of judicial misconduct during their espionage trial put Kaufman back under siege. Picketers dogged his footsteps as critics demanded impeachment. And tragedy stalked his family, attributed in part to the long ordeal. Instead of propelling him to the Supreme Court, as Kaufman once hoped, the case haunted him to the end.

Absorbingly told, Judgment and Mercy brings to life a complex man by turns tyrannical and warm, paranoid and altruistic, while revealing intramural Jewish battles over assimilation, class, and patriotism. Siegel, who served as Kaufman's last law clerk, traces the evolution of American law and politics in the twentieth century and shows how a judge unable to summon mercy for the Rosenbergs nonetheless helped expand freedom for all.

Enduring Controversy

The Rosenberg executions ignited worldwide protest in 1953. Demonstrations resumed in the 1970s, when newly released FBI documents showed Judge Kaufman had held secret meetings with the prosecutor, Roy Cohn. Over the years, public denunciations, picketing, and bomb threats turned what he hoped would be a career-making case into a poisoned chalice.

rosenberg execution protests
Martin J Siegel writer attorney

About the author

Martin J. Siegel clerked for Judge Kaufman on the Second Circuit after graduating from Harvard Law School. He then served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York and a staffer on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. He now practices law in Houston and teaches American Legal History at the University of Houston Law Center, where he also directs the Appellate Civil Rights Clinic.

Siegel's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Houston Chronicle, and various legal journals and law reviews.

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