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Libel, in Fact: Lawyering Up

Legal teams assembled, personality to be judged...

Senator Goldwater lost the presidential race by a landslide.

After the election, Senator Goldwater claimed he had been libeled in Fact magazine, and the next year he began to further stake his claims regarding the matter.

I have recounted the reports by Fact and reactions to them here, here, and here.

In a libel proceeding, the judgment of personality is filtered through the presentations made by the opposing legal teams. What was said about the libeled individual and why, and the character of the libeled individual are scrutinized.  Each side creates a narrative about what actually happened.  In this case the issues concerned what Senator Goldwater's character actually was like, what the defendants wrote and how they came to write it.

Senator Goldwater hired Mr. Roger Robb, an attorney then in private practice in Washington, DC, to represent him.

Mr. Robb was a Yale University-trained lawyer, born in Bellows Falls, VT. He had risen to national prominence as the Atomic Energy Commission's prosecutor in the controversial 1954 hearings regarding physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer's security threat regarding nuclear secrets. Mr. Robb laid bare many of Mr. Oppenheimer's personal weaknesses during the trial, and cost Mr. Oppenheimer his security clearance.

Senator Goldwater, with the guidance of Mr. Robb, brought a $2-million dollar libel suit filed in Federal District Court on Thursday, September 2nd, 1965, against the publisher of Fact magazine, Mr. Ralph Ginzburg, and the magazine's managing editor, Mr. Warren Boroson. 

The next day, Friday, September 3rd, Mr. Ginzburg held a press conference at his office in mid-town Manhattan, saying Fact had provided "a valuable service" by informing the public about Mr. Goldwater's character, and that the case would test the freedom of the press. 

Mr. Ginzburg and Mr. Boroson then hired Harris B. Steinberg as their defense attorney.

Mr. Steinberg was considered a "legend of the New York bar," and had served as president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (see portrait).  As characterized by the New York Times coverage, he could be dramatic in the courtroom -- grand and sometimes gruff, and a clever thinker who was also a showman.  He could, for example, produce cartoons on-the-spot using charcoal on large sheets of paper -- a useful talent in the days well before computer projectors and MS Powerpoint.

Mr. Goldwater had lost his seat as an Arizona senator during his run for the presidency, and hoped to regain it upon the retirement of another Republican. His project to clear his name was in part in service of that goal.

These were some of the key figures among the men and women who assembled at the courthouse in New York three years later to participate in the libel trial.

At the start of the trial, Mr. Goldwater was 59 years of age, Mr. Ginzburg was 38, and Mr. Boroson's age was about 33 years.  Mr Robb was 61, and Mr. Steinberg was 56.

The trial and its appeals would reach the Supreme Court, would close a magazine, change certain ethical guidelines regarding how one could judge a political figure, and provide some intriguing insights into defamation of character more generally.

The trial began on May 6th of 1968.  More on the courtroom events in an upcoming post...

Notes

Mr. Steinberg's courtroom skills are mentioned in Anderson, D. (1963, July 9) Charges Denied by RE's Lawyer. New York Times, p. 39.

"Legend of the New York bar" -- from Truell, P. (1998, February 18).  Riding shotgun for Wall Street; Combative lawyer for aggressive brokers is in demand.  New York Times: Business.  Downloaded from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/18/business/riding-shotgun-for-wall-stre…

One account of Mr. Robb's work on the Oppenheimer security hearings can be found in the book American Prometheus. http://www.americanprometheus.org/reviews/LATimes.htm.

Miscellaneous copy edits were made +1 hour of posting. At +25 hours, I clarified that the ages listed of the participants in the case were on May 6th, 1968 at the time of the trial (not, as could have been implied, for the filing of the suit in 1965). 

I estimated Mr. Boroson's age at the time of the trial from information in a Wikipedia entry. In a comment Aug 25th, Mr. Boroson said he was 29; in a personal communication via e-mail shortly thereafter, we clarified that Mr. Boroson was 29 in 1964 at the time the Fact issue was published, and 33 in 1968 at the beginning of the trial.  This is now more clearly reflected in the post (see above).

My thanks to Warren Boroson for his input.

Copyright (c) 2009 John D. Mayer

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