By William F. Causey
Based on Daniel M. Gribbon’s Oral History for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
This oral history of Daniel M. Gribbon, taken in 1997, recounts one of the most interesting and significant careers of any lawyer to have practiced in the District of Columbia.
Born in Youngstown, Ohio, on January 27, 1917, Dan Gribbon graduated from Harvard Law School in 1941, where he was an excellent student and served as the case editor of the Harvard Law Review. Shortly after receiving an invitation during his third year to interview at the law firm of Covington & Burling, Dean James Landis asked Gribbon if he wanted to serve as a law clerk for Chief Judge Learned Hand of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Gribbon immediately said yes, and then wrote a letter to Edward Burling requesting a delay in starting at the firm. Unbeknownst to Gribbon, Judge Hand and Burling were good friends, and the firm kept a position open for Gribbon until the completion of his one-year assignment with Judge Hand.
In his oral history, Gribbon provided a fascinating portrait of Judge Hand – how they would walk five miles every day to the courthouse talking about everything but cases along the way, how Judge Hand loved to read philosophy when not working, and how the judge would take Gribbon on occasion to the former Century Club to hear lectures by authors and explorers.
In May 1942, Gribbon tried to enlist in the Navy, but was rejected for active combat service because of poor eyesight. A few weeks later, however, he was accepted by the Navy to work on personnel matters in New York. Soon Gribbon was transferred to Washington, D.C. to serve as Secretary of the Joint War Plans Committee, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on developing war plans with the British. In his oral history, Gribbon described one assignment that involved drafting a letter for President Roosevelt to send to Winston Churchill explaining why D-Day had to proceed as planned. The next day Gribbon learned that Roosevelt had sent the letter without making any changes in the draft. Gribbon also recalled that at the time he saw many references in papers that came across his desk to something called the Manhattan Project, but he had no idea the name referred to the project to develop the atomic bomb until after August 1945.
After leaving the military in 1945, Gribbon finally started at Covington & Burling, which still had held open an associate position for him. Gribbon then embarked on a fascinating career as one of the top litigators at the firm. In his oral history, he talks about some of the people he worked with at the firm, including Dean Acheson (whose office was next door), Charles Horsky, and Gerhard Gesell. Gribbon also discusses some of the more famous cases he handled, including Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978) and Upjohn Co. v. United States (1981), two landmark Supreme Court cases. Included in the oral history are interesting recollections about some of the more famous lawyers that Gribbon litigated with over the years, including Archibald Cox, Floyd Abrams, Edward Bennett Williams, and John Wilson.