A Talk With a Mentor: Albert Moskowitz, Former Chief of Criminal Section, US Justice Department

photo by nostri-imago

 

Andrew Bruskin talks with his uncle about his journey from teacher to attorney to U.S. Justice Chief in order to find answers to the question: How do people become successful?

I recently sat down and interviewed my uncle, Albert Moskowitz, an internationally renowned attorney and former Chief of the Criminal Section in the U.S. Justice Department. This begins a series of articles where I will profile successful professionals–attorneys, journalists, politicians, doctors, CEO’s, community leaders, investment bankers, and entrepreneurs–to try and answer this elusive, but ever evolving question: how do people become successful? How can students and young professionals capitalize on this success and become successful in their own right? I hope to use these interviews to not only examine extraordinary careers, but to also showcase how success works and mentor young professionals on how to reach it.

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Andrew Bruskin: Hi Albert. Thank you for sitting down and allowing me to ask you these questions regarding your career and your accomplishments as an attorney. When did you first think of becoming a lawyer? Was this a gradual process over time, or was this decision a sudden occurrence?

Albert Moskowitz: You’re welcome Andrew, and it is a great pleasure to help. I decided to go to law school while teaching high school English and Latin in a Kansas City suburb. After two years of teaching, I was anxious to get a job in the adult world and make some real money. I liked the idea of litigating criminal cases. That seemed an exciting and important arena where I could have an impact, and my background in English struck me as good preparation for law school.

 

Andrew Bruskin: Before you went to law school, where did you go to college? What was your major? Did you get involved in a lot of extracurricular activities?

Albert Moskowitz: I went to CCNY, where I majored in English Literature and Classics (Latin). I was not really involved and I mostly focused on studies.

 

Andrew Bruskin: After you graduated college, did you go to law school immediately? If not, what did you do? How long did you do this job before deciding to attend law school?

Albert Moskowitz: No. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where I got a Masters in English Literature with a minor in Greek and Latin. I had planned to enter the PhD program there, but I got tired of school and wanted to work as soon as possible. I then spent a year at Hunter College to get a teaching certificate, and student taught for a semester at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. After that I landed a job in Shawnee Mission Kansas teaching English and Latin in High School where I stayed for two years.

 

Andrew Bruskin: Where did you go to law school? What activities were you involved 

Albert Moskowitz: I stayed in Kansas City and went to the University of Missouri where I got a scholarship and found a part time job as an apartment manager in exchange for free rent. As a result I left law school three years later with virtually no debt. Activities included writing and editing for the Law Review, working on the Moot Court Board and competing in trial advocacy competitions and contributing articles to and editing the Urban Lawyer, a quarterly publication put out by the school on municipal issues.

 

Andrew Bruskin: I am so jealous about the debt free part. Let’s discuss your career. What was your first job as a lawyer? How did you go about getting this job?

Albert Moskowitz: First job: attorney in the Department of Revenue for the State of Missouri in Jefferson City, Mo where I conducted administrative hearings and made recommended findings on tax disputes between the State and individuals and businesses. I also reviewed and commented on proposed legislation affecting the Department. I got the job simply by responding to an announcement in the Law School of a vacancy in that Department. I sent in my resume and a cover letter, got an interview, and was hired.

 

Andrew Bruskin: How long did you work at this job? What are the greatest lessons/experiences you got from working here?

Albert Moskowitz: About a year and a half. I had a very demanding boss who was an expert in this difficult field of law. He helped me master the complexities of this arcane subject, gave me a lot of independence and responsibility but demanded high quality analysis and written product in return. His high standards and expectations really opened my eyes as to how a lawyer needs to think and work. This was not the area of law I had envisioned going into when I went to law school, but the lessons I learned there – the work ethic, analytical approach to legal issues, and good writing habits – provided a strong foundation for the rest of my career.

 

Andrew Bruskin: Let’s talk about your time at the Justice Department. When did you start working for them? How were you offered a position to work for the federal government?

Albert Moskowitz: I went from the Deptartment of Revenue to jobs as a criminal litigator, first as a State Public defender in Kansas City, Mo and after a year there as a Federal Public Defender also in KCMO. In these jobs I learned how to try cases in court which is what I always wanted to do. While in the federal defenders office I was assigned to a high profile civil rights case involving a white man accused of a killing a black man in a public park. The case was prosecuted out of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice in Washington DC. Two prosecutors from the Division came to Kansas City to try the case on behalf of the government. So we were on opposite sides. Prior to the trial I filed motions to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the law under which the case was brought was unconstitutional because the 14th amendment, the legal basis for the law in question, is limited to state action and does not reach private conduct. This was the first time such an attack on the validity of the law had been made, and though the argument ultimately failed on appeal, it must have made an impression on the lawyers from DC, because two years later they invited me to apply for an opening in the Division. I did, got the job and moved to DC in 1984. I stayed for more than 20 years rising from trial attorney to the Chief of the Section.

 

Andrew Bruskin: What was the most exciting case you had to work on? What did you learn from working there?

Albert Moskowitz: Every case there was exciting and challenging. One in particular involved a state court judge who for many years had been sexually assaulting female litigants in his court room and chambers. This was a small county in rural Tennessee and the judge’s brother was the DA. So the victims were too intimidated to complain to local authorities. We instituted a federal investigation based on a novel interpretation of the civil rights laws. We worked closely with the victims to get them ready to testify at trial and to help them overcome their fear and embarrassment.

At trial I took a leading role, putting on the victims, cross examining the judge and delivering the closing argument. The jury convicted and the judge was sentenced to 25 years in jail, but on appeal, the conviction was reversed. The 6th circuit held that the law could not apply to sexual assaults by a state actor, essentially rejecting my legal interpretation. As a result the judge was released and the victims were devastated. I pushed the Department to seek review in the Supreme Court and drafted a number of memos to that affect.

Ultimately, DOJ agreed and requested review in the Supreme Court. Certiorari was granted as I had hoped. I assisted in preparing briefs and arguments before the Court. I and many of the victims attended the oral argument before the Court. Several months later, the Court reversed the 6th circuit and essentially reinstated the conviction affirming my interpretation of the law. The 6th Circuit then ordered the judge to report back to jail, but the judge fled to Mexico and refused to return. The case was highlighted on the TV show, America’s Most Wanted. The day after that show aired, the Mexican authorities arrested the judge at a post office and returned him to US custody. The judge remains in the penitentiary where he will stay to serve out the rest of his sentence.

What did I learn from my years in DOJ? Lots of things about how to try cases, deal with victims and analyze legal principles. But overall I saw that the system can work and secure justice but that this does not necessarily happen easily. It often takes a lot of committed people working very hard in the face of setbacks and reverses to assure that justice is done.

 

Andrew Bruskin: I think all of this is just incredibly fascinating. How did you start working with the United Nations? Can you tell us about your job responsibilities?

Albert Moskowitz: While at DOJ, I took a year off in 1998 to join the war crimes court in The Hague which was prosecuting cases that arose out of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia in the early 90’s. I was assigned to a trial team working on a case involving the ethnic cleansing of a moslem village in Bosnia. Many of the moslem men were killed and their homes destroyed. I helped put the case together and present the evidence in court at the trial. A fascinating experience, especially to see how an international tribunal made up of lawyers and investigators from many different legal systems can function.

After a year in The Hague I returned to DOJ to become the Chief of the Criminal Section. Seven years later I retired and returned to the UN, this time to Kosovo to be the Minister of Justice for the UN there. In that role I oversaw all aspects of the justice system, including the courts, the prosecutors and the prisons. This was a tremendously exciting job which gave me a broad overview of how the various components of a criminal justice system work. But it was a 24/7 high pressure job. Every day there was a new crisis that needed immediate attention—hunger strikes at the prison, witnesses at trial who were threatened and needed protection, corruption cases involving local political figures, resource shortages, simmering tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians—particularly in the north of the country where judges threatened to refuse to take cases. The situation was often very tense. I was given a bullet proof car and a protection detail 24 hours a day. In addition to daily emergencies, I oversaw efforts to transfer competencies from the UN to local officials in anticipation of an independent Kosovo.

 

Andrew Bruskin: If you had any advice for young college and graduate students who are entering a tough job market, what would it be?

Albert Moskowitz: Don’t limit your search to the high profile prestige positions. They are scarce and difficult to get. Focus on finding a job that is challenging and where you can perfect the basic skill set of a lawyer, particularly litigation and legal writing. This may mean setting your sights on government jobs at the state or local levels. While the pay and prestige may not equal corporate or federal work, such positions may be easier to find and often allow for greater responsibility at an earlier age, providing a good opportunity to develop the expertise and gain the experience necessary to make you more marketable as you progress through your career. If you perform well, people will notice, you will make contacts and new opportunities will present themselves.

 

Andrew Bruskin: What are you currently doing now, job-wise? Any plans for the future?

Albert Moskowitz: I’ve spent the last 7 years doing development work with prosecutors and judges in various countries around the world, drawing upon my litigation experience to mentor and train them on rule of law issues in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. It’s been a great adventure and the plan is to continue for as long as possible.

photo: nostriimago / flickr

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About Andrew Bruskin

Andrew Bruskin is an attorney.  For more information on his background, please check out his LinkedIn or Facebook page.

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