Harold Greene, AT&T Case Judge, Dies
By Martin Weil
Greene, who had retired from the bench, died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
A friendly, compassionate, unassuming man who had attended law school at night, Greene supervised a complex case that challenged the existence of a vast business empire that seemed a pillar of the American way of life. The case aroused strong passions, drew widespread attention and paved the way for the current communications revolution.
With his rulings and opinions, he became one of the best-known federal judges of his time and enhanced a reputation developed over long years for fairness, energy, intelligence and--in particular--commitment to due process, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
He has been widely regarded as perhaps Washington's premier trial judge of his era.
Before gaining national prominence for approving and presiding over the consent decree that created the Baby Bells, Greene had already established a brilliant legal reputation.
He was known as a former Justice Department lawyer and official who played an integral role in creating some of the civil rights legislation that helped transform the nation in the 1960s. As a key aide and "answer man" to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he was regarded as a principal legal architect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Greene, a resident of Washington since his World War II Army service in Europe, was also a major force in the late 1960s and early '70s in reorganizing the District's court system, which had been viewed as a legal shambles. Before being appointed to the federal court here, he had been chief judge of the city's Superior Court.
During the turbulent days of the late 1960s and early '70s, when the District was a focus of social unrest and political protest, Greene won respect as a compassionate and firm believer in "the system" who labored diligently to afford constitutional rights to each person arrested.
There were times when chaos filled the streets and hundreds of people were swept up and detained. In other cities, people were arraigned in groups. Greene refused to countenance that. His court held hearings round-the-clock to hear each case individually.
Harold H. Greene, often called one of the legends of the American bar, was born in Germany, where his father owned a jewelry store. In 1939, faced by the virulence of Hitler's antisemitism, the family fled its homeland, making its way to Belgium, Vichy France, Spain and Portugal before arriving in this country in 1943, during World War II.
Greene, who already spoke fluent English, entered the Army and was sent back to Europe. He was in military intelligence, assigned to interrogate German prisoners.
In an interview conducted in 1996 by the D.C. Bar, Greene was asked about the satisfactions of returning with a victorious army to his native Germany.
In fact, he said, there was little time to formulate his thoughts in "such grandiose terms." Often, he said, his concerns were "I wonder where we are going to stay tonight," and "I hope the food is cooked better than it was yesterday."
In this country, his parents had moved from New York to Washington, and at war's end, Greene joined them. As a veteran, he gained admission to law school after two years of college, and he began attending George Washington University law school at night.
"I had the sense," he said, that the law "was a profession where I might be able to make a contribution."
After graduation, he began clerking in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which, because of the cases it hears, is often regarded as the second most powerful court in the nation, after the U.S. Supreme Court.
Subsequently, he joined the U.S. attorney's office here, and then went to work in the office of legal counsel at the Justice Department. Part of his work involved the legality of sending U.S. troops to enforce the rights of the black students in the Little Rock school integration case.
The federal Civil Rights Act of 1957 established Justice's civil rights division, and Green went there to become the first head of the appeals and research section.
"There wasn't any question about what side I was on," Greene told the D.C. Bar. "Both Robert Kennedy and I, and many others, were convinced that there was only one right side.
"It wasn't like today, where there are many differing opinions on affirmative action and quotas and set-asides.
"Back then, there was a very clear-cut dividing line between right and wrong. Segregation was wrong. It was that simple."
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Greene to the local court that was the predecessor to today's D.C. Superior Court. It was known as the D.C. Court of General Sessions and dealt with essentially minor offenses and lesser civil matters.
A somewhat Hogarthian venue, perhaps with more than its share of the raffish and roguish, General Sessions had the reputation, Greene said, "of being no more than a police court."
Soon, however, Greene was named chief judge, and as he recalled it, with some of the other new judges, he began to bring about reforms that eventually led to reorganization. The Superior Court now handles the same sorts of felonies as the trial courts in any state.
There was great opposition to the transfer of such authority to the city's court, but with Greene at the helm, matters eventually fell into place.
In 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., rioting broke out here. In dealing with those arrested, Greene said, he "felt very strongly that the judiciary shouldn't cease to function as a judiciary merely because we were in the midst of difficult civil disturbances."
"In criminal cases," he said, "it is the individual that counts." He acted on this principle by keeping judges at work round-the-clock. Each case was tried as a normal case, and "I take some pride in that," he said.
After 12 years on the District's court, Greene was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. District Court here, where one of the first group of cases assigned to him was the AT&T matter.
"I didn't dream up the breakup of AT&T," Greene said.
That, he said, followed from the consent degree agreed to by the two parties to the action, AT&T and the Justice Department.
The case involved as many as 30 or 40 lawyers on either side, providing a vast engine for creating arguments and submitting motions. Trial under Greene consumed 11 months.
And indeed, Greene suggested that the "voluminous opinions" he wrote on matters arising during trial "may have had some impact" in bringing the parties to settle. Some lawyers, he said, believed that those opinions signaled what his ruling might be. But he said that was a misconception.
"I didn't know how it was going to come out," he said, explaining that he was "much too busy" coping with problems that arose during trial. And, he said, he never did decide the case on its merits.
The Department of Justice view was that AT&T used profits from its monopoly on local telephone service to suppress competition in the emerging long-distance and telephone equipment industries. But in the view of most of its customers, AT&T was a model provider of efficient, dependable service. They wished it had been left alone.
Greene held the view that the case "came out better than I expected," providing "great benefit to American businesses, to the economy and to American life in general, because it brought competition to the telecommunications industry."
Nonetheless, he said, "it is not the sort of thing I want written on my tombstone, for it's not the only thing I ever did in life."
He was a member of Beth El Congregation in Bethesda.
Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Evelyn, of Washington; a son, Michael Greene, of McLean; a daughter, Stephanie Cavagrotti, of Culver City, Calif.; and three grandchildren.
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