How Just Was Ramsey Clark?

Justice: The Crisis of Law, Order and Freedom in America

by Richard Harris
Dutton, 268 pp., $6.95

A recent bar association report diplomatically summarized the consequences of the 1969 crime bill supported by the Administration and signed by the President:

Taken as a whole, while S. 30 demonstrates commendable effort and attention to a terribly serious problem, in its present form it contains the seeds of official repression. Some of the aspects of the system of criminal justice S. 30 would seek to impose are almost Kafkaesque: a public official could be publicly condemned on the basis of accusations of the grand jury which he had no opportunity to rebut at a trial; a grand jury witness could be imprisoned for three years for civil contempt without trial and without bail; a defendant could be prevented from raising constitutional objections to evidence introduced against him—even after having established conclusively that an unconstitutional search and seizure had taken place; and one convicted of any federal felony could be sentenced to 30 years imprisonment on the basis of “information” which could never be used against him at a trial.

Moreover, last April, The New York Times, in a series of four editorials called “The Threat to Liberty,”1 warned of “the currently evolving pattern of overt and subtle policies which tear at the fabric of a free pluralistic society.” They listed conspiracy prosecutions of dissenters, the Administration’s open exploitation of fear and discord, use of electronic eavesdropping, and “the store of computerized intelligence data banks maintained today by a host of agencies from the Justice Department to the military.”2

All this will come as no surprise to any student or victim of President Nixon’s political achievements, which include the Internal Security Act of 1950 (the Mundt-Nixon bill), passed over President Truman’s veto, a law which contains more provisions held unconstitutional3 and unworkable4 than any other statute in our history. Yet by passage of this law, even though much of it was ultimately declared unconstitutional, the authors succeeded in institutionalizing the period of repression bearing the name of a more heterodox figure, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a period that was to devastate the body politic until a new generation of young people emerged free, if not of their own problems, at least from those shibboleths which paralyzed their elders.

Justice does not deal with the incubating period of the cold war, but with some of its later manifestations. The main character is the Attorney General’s office under Ramsey Clark, in the transition period, and under John N. Mitchell. Its principal themes are the government’s control of crime, enforcement of civil rights laws, and reaction to political dissent. Most of the material first appeared in The New Yorker, for which Mr. Harris is a staff writer; hence it is a bit repetitious as that magazine’s serializations tend to be.

Obviously, Harris is too laudatory of the Justice Department under Clark, as Alexander Bickel of Yale Law School has noted with his customary sardonic disposal of enthusiastic liberals;5 for example, under Clark the bureaucracy of the Internal…

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