Society's Conscience

Judge Archie Gingold, law class of 1932, discusses justice

The word "justice" in Hebrew has more than one synonym — one is "benevolence."

"The law is an honorable profession and can do a lot of good, and there is always room for improvement," said Judge Archie Gingold, a 1932 graduate of the St. Thomas School of Law.

A judge since 1954, Gingold, 93, is the last living alumnus of the university’s first law school. He hasn’t had time to grow old, however, and has the energy and sense of mission of a man decades younger. He stresses humanity in the legal system, has lived his life by emphasizing community rather than division, and loves the idea of St. Thomas beginning a new law school.

So Gingold — a young Jewish graduate of Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul — enjoyed attending the Catholic St. Thomas after two years of study at Macalester College. "Lots of Jewish kids have gone to St. Thomas," he said. "It has always had a reputation for tolerance and is very ecumenical. Its founder, Archbishop John Ireland, was an ecumenical leader."

Awards from professional and humanitarian institutions (Brandeis University lauded his court reform; Jewish War Veterans named him "Man of the Year"; the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, St. Thomas, the Union Gospel Mission and the Ramsey County Bar Association honored him a humanitarian) fill one wall of his home near the campus.

But his "greatest satisfaction" has been handling over 10,000 adoptions. "Myer Applebaum of the grocery chain donated coffee and cookies, and the lawyers’ wives group served them, to make adoptions a happy occasion every Wednesday," he said, "but it was a secret contribution. Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, said the receiver should not know who the giver is."

He presided over Juvenile Court from 1960 until his retirement in 1978 (and then continued serving as a retired judge until 1989), and is famous for becoming a children’s advocate. He established battered child teams, consisting of medical, legal and social work professionals. He crusaded for more foster care and group homes. He wrote and visited the juveniles he sent to detention centers. He fought to get the juvenile detention center moved downtown, so parents might visit their kids. "I was always fighting for something," he recalled with a smile.

Gingold knows every detail of legal precedent, but quotes Gibran’s The Prophet on crime and punishment: "The wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all. If our children commit crime, society must look at itself. The court, in essence, becomes society’s conscience."

His enthusiasm for the new St. Thomas School of Law is strong. "I think a lot of constructive work will be carried on there. The law has a benevolent side to it, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. I think that is part of Dean David Link’s vision.

"St. Thomas could eventually become a vital center and perhaps a national leader for the improvement of human services in the court systems. I hope that in the future it will bring together legal experts for symposiums on problems in the system that need to be addressed."

Expressing little patience for those who criticize a "Catholic" law school, Gingold explains that law started with religion and the two are clearly related. "I have dealt with people of all different religious backgrounds, and I know that those who have a strong religious commitment are usually on the same wavelength when it comes to questions of community improvement.

"Theology will not be taught in the law school, but the St. Thomas environment, by the very nature of things, will provide a religious sensitivity that concerns all mankind.

"St. Thomas has a School of Social Work, a business school and other departments that can help the law students prepare themselves for the new approaches in mediation and arbitration. These are systems that are continually growing by virtue of overcrowded court calendars."

Basically, Gingold believes, "good lawyers are good at using community resources, such as agencies that deal with children. Many are church-related, like Jewish Family Services, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities — but they take people no matter what their religious background. Just because we believe in the separation of church and state does not mean we cannot use the social services of religious organizations. In the same way, St. Thomas is a very valuable community for a law school."

The issues in the legal system that concern Gingold are the debates about sentencing procedures, rather than studying alternatives to incarceration. While he believes in maximum security institutions for those who commit serious, terrible crimes, "we need other resources than always locking up. Today thousands could be safe in the community and the community could be safe, too, with appropriate alternatives." Racial disparity in the criminal courts system is another concern. So is certifying children who have committed serious offenses to adult prisons. "That’s moving in the wrong direction. Society needs a maximum security facility for the small percent of children who cannot be treated otherwise," Gingold believes. "And we can do a lot about violence now, starting with more specialized personnel in schools to deal with children’s problems."

Asked how he can be 93, yet look and act decades younger, Gingold smiled and said, "I’ve been lucky. I have a beautiful wife, Helen, three lovely daughters, three devoted son-in-laws, and eight wonderful grandchildren." One grandchild, Jeffrey Iverson, graduated magna cum laude from St. Thomas in 2000.

Gingold concludes: "I was treated wonderfully at the St. Thomas law school and I owe St. Thomas so much. I still walk the campus and think about that."

He laughs as he recalls seeing a St. Thomas student in his court in the 1950s. Gingold told him, "I’m putting you on probation under Father Vashro, the dean of students." "No, not Father Vashro!" the defendant pleaded. "I’d rather be sentenced right now." But Gingold called the tough, no-nonsense Vashro at St. Thomas. "He’s bright, but I’m going to throw him out of college," he recalls his old friend Vashro saying. "No," Gingold suggested, "move him into a room on your floor for the next few months and see if his behavior improves.

"I met that student years later at a public dinner. He had turned out to be a fine man."

So that, on a small scale, is justice — leavened with creative benevolence.