Crime and Reformation: An Outspoken State Supreme Court Judge as Become the Darling of Ardent Conservatives

Article excerpt

An outspoken state Supreme Court judge has become the darling of ardent conservatives.

Harold Rothwax is a rare bird. Known as the "Prince of Darkness" for his no-nonsense courtroom demeanor, the 65-year-old New York State Supreme Court judge has won the hearts of conservatives at a time when they routinely for dispensing "junk justice." His recent book, Guilty: The Collapse of Criminal Justice, a scathing critique published in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial, has tilted the political zeitgeist toward judicial reform.

"The public line from the members of the bar is that the delays and the extent to which the guilty go free are the price we pay for freedom," says former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr. "That's rubbish!"

But columnist Nat Hentoff, a civil libertarian who writes frequently on legal issues, believes Rothwax has "added to the feeling around the nation that `technicalities' get in the way of [fighting] crime - technicalities like the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments and all those subversive notions."

Another reason Rothwax's voice may be especially compelling: his decidedly liberal background. A Columbia Law School graduate, he began his career as a defense attorney for the Legal Aid Society and belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union until his 1971 appointment to the criminal court bench. "I believed then [but] I don't believe any longer that the process is a rational process," he tells Insight. "When I became a judge, I realized as part of my daily work I was required to release guilty people for no good reason!"

Rothwax blames that unhappy circumstance on a long list of Supreme Court decisions dating to the 1960s that he contends have tied the hands of prosecutors and police, making justice "a lottery" in which defendants get a "sporting chance" to avoid the law. …