Recorded audio and moving images have been part of our cultural history for over a century now, and over the years Harvard Law School’s Historical & Special Collections has amassed thousands of audiovisual artifacts related to legal history and curriculum in the United States and beyond. These types of media degrade relatively quickly, and can become obsolete when their players are no longer being produced. Even the DVD-R, a format developed barely 15 years ago – “new” if considered within the context of the long arc of preservable culture – is only expected to have a lifespan of 5 to 20 years before its contents are no longer readable. For comparison, HSC’s oldest item is a komonjo dated 1158 that (with proper housing, temperature, humidity control, security, and standard conservation intervention) is still thriving today, in a format that isn’t obsolete (rice paper).
In the interest of both mitigating these risks to ongoing preservation and providing access to more dynamic digital material for researchers, HSC is currently undergoing a long-term project to reformat our audiovisual collection. Many gems have been found already, but one in particular has stood out for this author: A Lawyer’s Place in Our Society, wherein Justice Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965) is interviewed by Prof. Paul A. Freund (1908-1992), recorded on 16mm film in the early 1960s and transferred later to u-matic tape, the copy from which the digital transfer was made. Paul Freund taught at Harvard Law School, focusing on constitutional law and conflict of laws, from 1939 until his retirement from teaching in 1976. Justice Frankfurter graduated from HLS in 1906, taught here from 1914-1939, and served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1939-1962.
The two were close friends, and it’s evidenced by their comfortable and well-articulated conversation. Justice Frankfurter’s thoughts often circle back to some common themes. He believes very much that the lawyer should also be a civic leader, attributing this requirement to the changing nature of the law: as law and government historically expands into affecting everyday lives, the lawyer increasingly needs to be an active citizen. Both Freund and Frankfurter share the opinion that great lawyers shall be exceptionally well-read (because “even with the greatest breadth of personal experience, it’s infinitesimal compared with the accumulated experience of mankind, and the accumulated experience of mankind is predominantly contained in the covers of books,” [25:00]) and involved in many activities outside of the field of law.
In addition to unsurprising homages to Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941) and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), Frankfurter goes on at length about the influence that his early mentor, Henry L. Stimson, had on him. Through his work with the then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he learned, “first and foremost, a sense of the deep responsibilities of all those who are concerned with the administration of the criminal law – the awfulness of the instruments by which men may lose their liberties and sometimes lose their lives as the result of a process of law” (28:00). Stimson would have preferred for search warrants to only be issued by a judicial officer, but absent that reality, he had his assistants accompany officers enforcing large search and seizure operations to ensure that they adhered strictly to the warrant and seized only the property that was explicitly described.
It’s quite extraordinary to see Frankfurter on film, born in the 19th century and speaking to us now. Though the interview was conducted near the end of his career and after the deaths of Holmes, Brandeis, and Stimson, it is stirring to imagine that his remarks are not speculation or even historic research based in their archives, but come from actual experiences with those towering legal figures that mentored him and significantly impacted American law. Check out the full video for yourself above, and stay tuned to Et Seq for more historic AV gems.