U.S. District Court Judge Harold H. Greene, who presided over the breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph, yesterday warned against a growing desire among elected and other officials to curtail the responsibilities of the courts.
Speaking before an estimated 4,000 people at the annual commencement of George Washington University's National Law Center, Greene cautioned that the legal profession is a "necessary counterweight to the political forces in society" and "vital to the preservation of freedom."
Greene told the 456 graduates that some officials, including U.S. senators, believe the courts should stay clear of various First Amendment and human rights issues.
He also said an increasing number of law school teachers and federal judges believe that Congress and the president should be trusted to interpret certain laws, including those involving environmental disputes.
"Is there anything wrong with that, we might ask? America is, after all, a democracy, and elected officials are closer to the people and therefore more likely to carry out its will than nine old justices in their marble temples, the black-robed members of the inferior courts, and the lawyers who make their arcane, technical and well-paid arguments to them?
"What is wrong with it, in a word," he added, "is that it is alien to the spirit of the Constitution."
Greene said judges should stay out of issues beyond their "competence and jurisdiction," including those involving the course of the economy and foreign policy.
But, he objected to the relegation of the courts to "the resolution of strictly private quarrels," and he said courts can protect the individual when the state threatens to interfere.
Greene said the United States is a vast amalgam of individuals from many countries and backgrounds, and that it contains "a strain of violence and vigilantism" stemming from its wilderness background.
"If all these strains are to be contained, if centrifugal forces are not to tear the nation apart, there must be centers of gravity apart from the shifting political majorities," he said. "The law, represented by its guardians -- the judges and lawyers -- is one such fixed star."
Greene, a National Law Center honors alumnus, was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree yesterday. He said he particularly appreciated the words that accompanied the honor "because they are the only kind words I have heard recently."
"As a result of my role in the breakup of AT&T," he said, "it is difficult for me to go anywhere, even to a cocktail party or a dinner, without encountering friends, enemies or relatives complaining about their telephone service or the size of their telephone bills."
Recently, Greene said, he even heard from Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. "He said, 'I want you to know that the telephone service at the Supreme Court is terrible.' "
On Jan. 1, 1984, AT&T, the sprawling communications giant, was split into eight companies.