Kaufman, Irving Robert (1910–1992)

Irving Robert Kaufman was the presiding judge over one of the most controversial trials in American history, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. At the age of eighteen, Kaufman graduated from Fordham College, then graduated from law school two years later (one year before he was even eligible to take the Bar Exam). As a judge, Kaufman gained a reputation for imposing harsh rulings and strict sentences, although he was also considered a champion for civil liberties. In 1961, Kaufman was promoted to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where he finished his judicial career.

The Rosenberg trial began on March 6, 1951, at the height of the infamous McCarthy Era in the United States. In what seemed an unusually harsh sentence, Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death in the electric chair after finding them guilty of conspiring to deliver atomic-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. They were the first American civilians to be put to death for espionage in the United States. Although the fairness of the Rosenberg proceedings was questioned at the time of the trial, the later publication of an autobiography by one of the prosecutors, Roy Cohn, served to discredit the proceedings further. Cohn claimed that his influence led to Kaufman (a family friend) being appointed to the case and that Kaufman had imposed the death penalty on Cohn’s personal (and ex parte) advice. Extrajudicial contacts between judges and prosecutors are unethical under rules of professional conduct.


References and Further Reading

  • Burnett, Betty. The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: A Primary Source Account. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2003.
  • Hoffman, Nicholas Von. Citizen Cohn. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
  • Meeropol, Robert. An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
  • Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg Files. 2nd Reprint Ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Zion, Sidney. Autobiography of Roy Cohn. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1988.


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