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Judge Lawrence Walsh has had a distinguished career in public service and private practice. In 1981, nearing mandatory retirement age at his law firm, he moved his practice to his wife’s hometown of Oklahoma City, and has been there ever since. ABA President William T. (Bill) Robinson III had an opportunity to interview Judge Walsh on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Jan. 8, 2012.
President Robinson: You have a long and distinguished career in the law and in public service. What are your most memorable moments or events?
Judge Walsh: The most memorable period in my career was working as assistant counsel to New York State Gov. Thomas E. Dewey under Gov. Dewey’s counsel, Charles D. Breitel (later chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals). Breitel was a perfectionist, and I worked very hard under him, but Breitel himself worked just as hard as I did. Gov. Dewey relied on him greatly, and he taught me a great deal.
President Robinson: What led to your choice of a career in the law?
Judge Walsh: My father wanted me to be an engineer. I had difficulty with math, however, and I found the engineering courses hard. In my second year at Columbia College, a friend referred me to Walter Fletcher, a partner at the Davis Polk law firm in New York, who invited me to lunch at the Lawyers’ Club and advised me to pursue a legal career. From that point on, I followed his advice.
President Robinson: You were born in Canada and became a naturalized citizen as a young man. Did that experience affect your career or life choices?
Judge Walsh: My naturalization as a United States citizen made it possible for me to become a lawyer in the United States and to pursue a legal career here. I have always loved Nova Scotia, where I was born. When I was a boy, our family used to return there every summer.
A short biography of Judge Walsh:
1938-41: Walsh served as deputy assistant district attorney of New York County.
1953-54: Walsh served as general counsel and executive director of the New York Harbor Waterfront Commission.
1954: President Eisenhower appointed Walsh to the U.S. District Court for the Southern district of New York, where he served for three years.
1957: Walsh was appointed Deputy Attorney General in the Eisenhower Administration.
1961-81: After leaving the Administration, Walsh resumed private practice in NYC, as a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell.
1969: Walsh was named ambassador in the U.S. Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.
1975-76: Walsh served as president of the ABA.
1986: Walsh was named as the independent counsel in charge of the Iran-Contra investigation.
President Robinson: Investigation and prosecution of corruption has been a guiding force throughout your career. What led you to work in this area?
Judge Walsh: My first legal job was working for J. Edward Lumbard (later chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit), when he served as special prosecutor in the Drukman murder investigation, which investigated corruption in the prosecution of a murder in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The Drukman investigation gave me experience in preparing and trying cases, which has remained valuable to me ever since.
After the Drukman investigation, Thomas E. Dewey invited me to become a deputy assistant district attorney when he was elected district attorney of New York County. There I worked under the supervision of Murray Gurfein. First I worked on an investigation of price fixing by electrical contractors. Then I worked on an investigation that led to the exposure and resignation of Chief Judge Martin T. Manton of the Second Circuit. Under Stanley Fuld (later chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals), I was introduced to appellate work. Finally, I spent 15 months trying jury cases in the Court of General Sessions.
President Robinson: You are perhaps best known for your role as independent counsel for the Iran-Contra investigation during the Reagan administration. What did you learn from that experience? What did the country learn?
Judge Walsh: One of the most important lessons I learned from the Iran-Contra investigation was the importance of public understanding and support for the role of the independent counsel. I tried in many ways to make sure that the public understood the independent counsel’s role and its importance to the rule of law. My talk at the ABA Annual Meeting in 1987 was devoted to this topic. Another lesson that was driven home was the willingness of some government officials and attorneys to withhold evidence. This lengthened our investigation and increased its expense.
President Robinson: Why did you title your autobiography “The Gift of Insecurity”?
Judge Walsh: Insecurity was a hallmark of my early life. My father died when I was in high school, and I thereafter worked part time in high school and college. Graduating during the Great Depression with mediocre law school grades, I had trouble finding a job. As a result, I greatly valued the professional opportunities that I was able to obtain, beginning with the Drukman investigation, working long hours to hold my job and excel if possible. That was my gift of insecurity.
President Robinson: What led you to become active in the ABA? What were some of your most memorable or prominent events at the ABA, including during your year as ABA president?
Judge Walsh: Cloyd LaPorte, a partner of the Dewey firm in New York, urged me to become active in the New York State Bar Association and then in the ABA. During my term as ABA president, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with a memorable convocation including Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and the lord chancellor and the lord chief justice of England. We also supported Chief Justice Burger’s plan for the Pound Conference on justice, which led to many reforms in the procedures in federal and state courts. We introduced for the first time standing committees of the Board of Governors, which made it possible to carry on the work of the ABA with greater focus and continuity.
President Robinson: Many thanks for your great service to this association, and to the country. And congratulations on your 100th birthday!
Judge Walsh: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.