Life story of Bessie Margolin, woman on Nuremberg prosecution team, takes shape

At IntLawGrrls and elsewhere, colleagues and I have, in recent years, told the stories of  Women at Nuremberg. A 2011 article of mine profiled Cecelia Goetz, who, after becoming the 1st woman to give an opening statement at an international criminal trial, went on to become the United States’ 1st federal bankruptcy judge. American University’s Shana Tabak has published a 2-part series on Grace Kanode, who, in July 1946 in Tokyo, became the 1st woman to appear bdolefore an international criminal tribunal. (See here and here.) And Katherine B. Fite, the U.S. State Department lawyer who helped draft the Nuremberg Charter, is not only the subject of 2 publications (a 2010 article by St. John’s Law Professor John Q. Barrett and a 2012 article by me), but also the namesake of an annual lecture given at the International Humanitarian Law Dialogs.

Not all the postwar pioneers have yet been named, however, and so we have Baltimore attorney Marlene Trestman to thank for bringing another to the fore. She is Bessie Margolin (right). Born in 1909, Margolin’s mother died when she was 4, so that she and her sibling grew up as “half-orphans” in the New Orleans Jewish Orphans’ Home. Her 1930 graduation from Tulane Law School led to research and, in 1933, a doctorate from Yale Law. Soon Margolin found herself the 1st woman lawyer at the federal government’s newly created Tennessee Valley Authority. By 1939 she’d moved to the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, the beginning of a three-decades career that included argument of 28 Supreme Court cases, plaudits from top-ranking judges, and a slew of awards.  (credit for circa-1950s Department of Labor photo, courtesy of Marlene Trestman) Margolin died in 1996 without ever securing the federal judgeship for which she’d campaigned.

A sliver of that career included the months in 1946 and 1947 that she spent at Nuremberg, Germany. Even as the International Military Tribunal Trial of the Major Nazi War Criminals unfolded at the Palace of Justice, Margolin did the important work of devising the plan for the subsequent trials before the U.S. entity now known as the Nuremberg Military Tribunals. The article’s depiction of Margolin’s dual status, as a serious lawyer and as an oft-invited guest at parties, mirrors stories of Fite and others.

Author Trestman, who lived years later at the same New Orleans orphanage, published a brief account of Margolin’s life last year, in a Journal of Supreme Court History article entitled “Fair Labor: The Remarkable Life and Legal Career of Bessie Margolin.” She’s now at work on a book-length treatment, one that will enrich understanding of the contribution that Margolin and other women lawyers of the last half-century made, both away at Nuremberg and here at home.

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