Born in Wisconsin, David Bazelon grew up in Chicago and practiced law there. In 1949, President Truman named him to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, often described as the country's most influential court, next to the Supreme Court. At 40, he was the youngest judge ever appointed to that court. From 1962-1978 he served as chief judge, retiring in 1986 as a senior judge.
As noted in The New York Times' February 21, 1993 obituary, "Rather than follow precedent set in a simpler time, [Judge Bazelon] questioned the status quo and sought to apply new findings in the social sciences and psychiatry to issues the court faced." Two of his landmark opinions established for the first time the right of a mental patient to appropriate treatment: Rouse v. Cameron, 373 F.2d 451 (D.C. Cir. 1966 and Lake v. Cameron, 364 F.2d 657 (D.C. Cir. 1967), which held that this meant treatment in the least restrictive alternative setting — a mandate made national law more than 20 years later by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The judge's own words, in his book, Questioning Authority (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), describe the impact of these rulings in pioneering the field of mental health law:
"I would never have imagined all that would follow. Since most of the people involved were poor, powerless, and often incarcerated for life in mental hospitals, they had neither the money nor the credibility to focus attention on the legal issues they faced. All that was to change with the entry of public interest attorneys. We may debate the merits of increasing legal involvement in any sector of society. But few doubt that recognition of mental patients' legal rights has precipitated far-reaching changes in attitudes and in the mental health system."
At the forefront of the new legal advocacy was the Mental Health Law Project, formed by some of the lawyers and mental health professionals who worked on early cases, including those in Judge Bazelon's court. In 1993, MHLP celebrated its 20th anniversary by rededicating its mission to Judge Bazelon and renaming itself in his honor.
An Interdisciplinary Thinker
"To be with David Bazelon was to find yourself in contact with the universe," said George Herman, former host of CBS News' Face the Nation. The Judge immersed himself in many emerging areas at the intersection of science and public policy. As a member of the National Institutes of Health Advisory Commission, he was one of the key architects of early guidelines for genetic engineering. He expressed his particular interest in psychiatry related to the law as a lecturer in law and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Menninger Clinic. He was an active member of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, serving as its president from 1967-1970, and was the only non-psychiatrist included in the first U.S. Mission on Mental Health to the USSR in 1967.
"Judge Bazelon has done more than any other single lawyer to remind the legal profession of its obligation to keep pace with extra-legal developments in the area of mental health," wrote his good friend, Justice William Brennan, in a commemorative booklet produced by the Bazelon Center. "By choosing to rename itself after Judge Bazelon," the organization "has accepted the challenge of living up to the vitally important principles to which Judge Bazelon devoted his extraordinary career."
"He the pebble, we the ripples on the pond."
The Judge was also noted for his law clerks - many now distinguished leaders in the fields of jurisprudence, education, business and government. One is Columbia Law Professor Peter L. Strauss, whose reminiscence gave our booklet its title:
"'Arbiter' is simply inadequate to express the responsibility the Judge felt, as any engaged public official would feel, for the just functioning of the system of which he was a part.... Year after year, the Judge impressed [this style] on a small group of beginning lawyers and future scholars who-because he was who he was, and could attract who he could-would move on to become as influential in American law as any set of law clerks in the country; especially has that influence been felt respecting American law affecting the person. He the pebble, we the ripples on the pond. The intensity and truth of that experience is measured in the ways we continue to propagate his style."
Among other former clerks are Yale Law Professor Robert Burt, a current trustee of the Bazelon Center, and Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, a past trustee.
You can purchase a copy of the 90-page booklet of tributes to and reminiscences and photographs of Judge David L. Bazelon or receive a copy as a thank-you gift, upon specific request, for a new contribution of $100 to the Bazelon Center.