David L. Bazelon

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David L. Bazelon
Judge Bazelon
Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
In office
Preceded byWilbur Kingsbury Miller
Succeeded byJ. Skelly Wright
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
In office
February 10, 1950 – June 30, 1979
Nominated byHarry Truman
Preceded bynone
Succeeded byHarry T. Edwards
Senior Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
In office
July 1, 1979 – 1985
Personal details
BornDavid Lionel Bazelon
September 3, 1909
Superior, Wisconsin
DiedFebruary 19, 1993(1993-02-19) (aged 83)
Washington, DC
Spouse(s)Miriam Kellner Bazelon
ChildrenJim Bazelon, Richard Bazelon
Alma materNorthwestern University

David Lionel Bazelon (September 3, 1909—February 19, 1993) was an American lawyer, who served as a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Early life, education, and career[edit]

Bazelon was born in Superior, Wisconsin, the son of Lena and Israel Bazelon, a general store proprietor.[1] His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants.[2] Bazelon grew up in Chicago and earned a B.S.L from Northwestern University in 1931. He worked in private practice for a few years and then worked as the Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1935 to 1946. He then worked as the United States Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Lands Division from 1946 to 1949.

Federal judicial service[edit]

On October 21, 1949, when he was 40 years old, Bazelon received a recess appointment from President Harry S. Truman to a new seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit created by 63 Stat. 493. Bazelon was the youngest judge ever appointed to that court. Formally nominated on January 5, 1950, he was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 8, 1950, and received his commission on February 10, 1950. From 1962 to 1978 he served as chief judge and semi-retired on June 30, 1979 into senior status. He served in that capacity until his death, in 1993, of Alzheimer's disease, though he stepped down from active service in 1985.[3] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1970.[4]

Influencing the United States Supreme Court[edit]

Bazelon was for decades the senior judge on the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, and a close associate of Justice William Brennan, whom he had met in 1956.[5] Justice William O. Douglas and President Johnson would be their sometime companions on trips to baseball games.[6]

Bazelon served with Warren Burger on the same DC Court of Appeals for over a decade, and the two grew to be not just professional rivals, but personal enemies as well.[7]

The Washington Post would note in 1981 that during the Warren Court era, lawyers who wanted a Bazelon opinion upheld would do well to mention the judge's name as many times as possible in their briefs... "One mention of this name was worth 100 pages of legal research."[8]

Bazelon became a primary source of Justice Brennan's law clerks.[9]

Judicial career[edit]

Bazelon had a broad view of the reach of the Constitution.[7] Conservatives viewed the judge as dangerous for his tendency to rule in favor of the lower class, the mentally ill, and defendants.[7] Bazelon authored many far-reaching decisions on topics as diverse as the environment, the eighteen-year-old vote, discrimination, and the insanity defense.[7] Many of his "radical" rulings were upheld by the Supreme Court.[8]

In Rouse v. Cameron, 373 F.2d 451 (D.C. Cir. 1966), Bazelon, writing for the court, became the first appellate judge to say that civilly committed mental patients had a "right to treatment."[10]

Feud with Burger[edit]

Bazelon was the nemesis of Chief Justice Warren Burger beginning from the time both served on the Court of Appeals.[11] Bazelon was a nationally recognized advocate for the rights of the mentally ill, and his opinion in 1954's Durham v. United States (which adopted a new criminal insanity test) set off a long clash between the two judges.[11] Under Bazelon's Durham rule, a defendant would be excused from criminal responsibility if a jury found that the unlawful act was "the product of mental disease or mental defect," rather than the product of an "irresistible impulse" (which was the old test).[11] Burger found the Durham rule deeply objectionable, and this was one of many serious disagreements the two would have over the course of their careers.[11] Bazelon's reach extended to Burger's tenure on the Supreme Court, thanks to Bazelon's close friendship with Justice Brennan.


Bazelon's former law clerks include prominent figures such as Loftus Becker, Alan Dershowitz, Martha Minow, Thomas Merrill, John Sexton, Robert Post, David O. Stewart, Eleanor Swift, Barbara Underwood, and John Koskinen. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an organization devoted to legal advocacy on behalf of persons with mental disabilities, is named after him. Judge Bazelon also became a very high-profile critic of the American Correctional Association, resigning from its accreditation committee. He was very disturbed by what he discovered to be an unaccountable organization that failed in its task, of insuring the professional and humane operations of prisons it evaluated.[12]

His granddaughter is journalist and editor Emily Bazelon.


  1. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/21/us/david-bazelon-dies-at-83-jurist-had-wide-influence.html
  2. ^ http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/ead/ead.html?id=EAD_upenn_biddle_WpennlawbllarchivesfindingaidsPULMSS003eadxmlUSPUL
  3. ^ Staff, From Times; Reports, Wire (1993-02-22). "David Bazelon; Retired Appellate Judge". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-12-08.
  4. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 28, 2011.
  5. ^ Eisler, Kim Isaac (1993). A Justice for All: William J. Brennan, Jr., and the decisions that transformed America. Pages 15, 202. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-76787-9
  6. ^ Eisler,203.
  7. ^ a b c d Eisler, 202.
  8. ^ a b Eisler, 203.
  9. ^ Eisler, 203 and 235.
  10. ^ "The Evolution of Disability Rights Litigation: In the Supreme Court: The Right to Treatment". Mn.gov. Retrieved 2015-02-13.
  11. ^ a b c d Greenhouse, Linda. Becoming Justice Blackmun. Times Books. 2005. Page 24.
  12. ^ Judge quits panel on prison ratings. The New York Times, Wendell Rawls Jr., August 8, 1982. Retrieved November 3, 2015.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
new seat
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Succeeded by
Harry T. Edwards