The late Attorney General Edward Levi used to write his speeches on a typewriter, two fingers on each hand pecking away at the keys. His addresses, which are collected in the new book “Restoring Justice,” were the focus of a panel discussion Wednesday that featured Justice Antonin Scalia and retired Justice John Paul Stevens.
When Levi became Attorney General in 1975, he was charged with the difficult task of rebuilding the reputation and staff structure at Main Justice after the Watergate scandal. (Before serving as Attorney General, Levi was president of the University of Chicago.)
Scalia in the 1970s served under Levi as assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel. The justice commended Levi’s intellect, judgment and courage. "He had character; he had guts," Scalia said Wednesday.
Former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Virginia Seitz, who leads the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., were also on the panel. Sidley Austin partner Peter Keisler served as moderator. The author of “Restoring Justice,” is Jack Fuller, a former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher.
A who's who of legal practitioners attended Wednesday’s panel talk, hosted at the Capitol Visitor's Center. Among the audience members: Justice Samuel Alito Jr., former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and former Solicitor General Paul Clement, now a partner at Bancroft.
Later in his legal career, Thornburgh would follow in Levi's footsteps, serving as attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Thornburgh quoted President Gerald Ford's characterization of Levi as "the attorney general against who all others are measured."
"It was such an extraordinary privilege to work for a man who not only commanded but deserved respect from the profession, the bench and all involved in public life," Thornburgh said Wednesday.
Levi's son David, the dean of Duke Law School, closed out the talk by fondly recalling his father's "Talmudic" tendencies, a reference to the compendium of rabbinical commentary on Jewish law.
"The story goes that his longtime and much devoted secretary once came in having been given a draft of a talk that he had given and said, 'Now I like this talk. I can understand it.' And he said, 'Give it back to me, it must not be finished,'" David Levi recalled.
Earlier this week, Holder celebrated the legacy of Levi at an event in Chicago, saying the late attorney general “brought an air of calm” at the Justice Department in the aftermath of Watergate.
“He brought a fractured Justice Department back together, and inspired his colleagues to redouble their efforts—reminding them that ‘[n]o task has more to do with the future of our country than the work in which [they were] engaged.’”
Fuller’s book, Holder said, shows how Levi “worked hard to win back the trust of the American people, and to rebuild public confidence in the Department.”
Levi “taught an entire generation of citizens and legal professionals—including me—that, when it comes to expanding opportunities and seeing that justice is done, even a single person can make a difference,” Holder said. “And that all of us have both the power, and the responsibility, to try.”
Mike Scarcella contributed to this report.