by Alexander Wohl. Mr. Wohl is an adjunct professor at American University Washington College of Law, speech writer in the federal government and a former Supreme Court Judicial Fellow. For more information about his new book on Justice Tom Clark and his son Attorney General Ramsey Clark, visit the Father, Son, and Constitution Facebook page.
As the only father and son to serve as attorneys general of the United States, Tom and Ramsey Clark are an historically unique pair, a distinction made even more noteworthy by Justice Tom Clark’s decision to give up his seat on the Supreme Court in 1967 so that his son could become President Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general. The tag-team tenure in government of this father and son was an unprecedented shared proximity to power and policy influence during some of the most challenging, divisive, and triumphant periods in U.S. history, from World War II to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But their impact is more far-reaching. In combined careers of more than 100 years and lives spanning three centuries, the Clarks provide a useful lens through which to examine the complex relationship between government and individual citizens that has defined and shaped U.S. legal and social policy through the present day.
At the heart of both Tom and Ramsey Clark’s work were many issues addressing this balance: the extent to which individuals should be prosecuted for “dangerous” speech or associations, when to use invasive law enforcement tools such as wiretapping, what type or duration of confinement constitutes unlawful detention, and the kind of role the federal government itself can or should play in the development of various policies and the enforcement of individual constitutional principles.
On these and other thorny questions the Clarks at once offer a set of ideological bookends and proof that views can evolve over time, a combination largely absent in an environment today in which questions about law and policy increasingly lead to ideological stratification and decision makers ever more pigeonholed in their views. While Tom and Ramsey Clark had clear differences in their outlook and approach, they often found common ground on many issues, including gun control, juvenile crime, and civil rights, along the way learning from each other.