ORALHISTORY OF ROBERT KOPP
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Judy Feigin, and the interviewee
is Robert Kopp. The interview took place at the home of Robert Kopp in Bethesda, Maryland on
Thursday, August 15, 2013. This is the second interview.
MS. FEIGIN: Good afternoon.
MR. KOPP: Good afternoon.
MS. FEIGIN: When we left off last time, your aunt had just, in a very feminist way, joined a law
firm, and her husband had stepped aside, and we’re now ready to move onto the
next part of your history.
MR. KOPP: The next significant part of my history, and in a way I think the most significant
event in my life, was that in 1953 my father died of leukemia at the age of 41, and
this was clearly a huge trauma for me, not to speak of for my mother and my
grandmother. Fortunately, I was part of a large, close-knit family on both my
father’s side and my mother’s side, and that helped us get through that very
difficult period. Also my father, almost with a sense of knowing what the future
might bring, was quite prescient back in 1936 when he and my mother got
married, because he felt that she had to have an occupational skill. He insisted
that she go to law school because he was concerned that at some point in her life
she might have to support herself on her own. At that time, he had no idea that he
had leukemia, but 15 years later, that proved to be absolutely critical. So she
applied and got into USC law school in Los Angeles, which did admit women,
and she graduated on the Law Review and number two in her class.
MS. FEIGIN: Do you have any idea how many women were in her class?
MR. KOPP: I think there were maybe four or five. Not a large number, but USC did admit
women and was one of the relatively small number of law schools in the country
at that time which did do so. George Washington University also did so, very
important in terms of my Aunt Hermione’s education. But women going to law
school in those days was quite rare.
So she graduated from USC, and then along came World War II, and she
was able to get a job in the District Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. But for her,
it was not a very pleasant experience. She had to endure what today we would
consider to be a type of sexual harassment that would get a superior officer
discharged. Her boss would chase her around. She just had very unpleasant
experiences and memories of that. When my father returned at the end of the war,
she was very happy to stop practicing law. But once he realized that he was
dying, he insisted that she resume the practice of law. Fortunately the family now
had a law firm, Gang, Kopp and Tyre, so she started to go to work again and
worked at Gang, Kopp and Tyre. She thus was back into the practice of law at the
time that he died in 1953. It was something that was very important to her at the
time, not merely because it brought in some money, but emotionally it kept her
preoccupied during what was obviously the worst period of her life. But she
hated it. She did not like law practice, and after she remarried and moved to
Washington and lived in a world filled with lawyers, she had no need to practice
law, and she let her bar license lapse.
MS. FEIGIN: We should say that by the time your father died, she was the mother of three.
MR. KOPP: Yes, she was the mother of three. I had two younger sisters, so when we moved
to Washington, DC, my stepfather was married not simply to my mother, but a
family of three, consisting of me in the midst of being a teenager and my younger
sisters who would be at that stage in a few years, and for him, it was a shock
(laughter) in a very different way.
I had mentioned earlier that my stepfather, Arnold Raum, had been a law
school classmate of my father, Bob Kopp. Arnold had grown up in
Massachusetts, and he was the son of poor immigrant Jews and had grown up in a
part of the state where religious tensions were considerable.
MS. FEIGIN: How so?
MR. KOPP: He remembered that when he would go home from school, there was always a
gang of Catholic boys that you had to watch out for while you were on the street
and if they caught you, you’d get beaten up. Those were some of his less pleasant
childhood memories, and I think when he applied to college, he was also at that
stage sensitive to the fact that there were quotas in terms of the number of Jews
that schools would take. It was sort of well-known, for instance, that Harvard
College had quotas on the number of Jews it would admit. However, he was
sufficiently smart that he did get into Harvard, and in fact academically he did
very well, graduating summa cum laude. But he always thought his experience at
Harvard was a very mixed experience. Academically, obviously, he did well, but
he bridled at the discrimination that he perceived against Jews and people who
MS. FEIGIN: I think people down the road may not understand that many of the Ivies were
gender-segregated. Were there only males at Harvard, and was Radcliffe entirely
separate, or had they integrated by that time?
MR. KOPP: Radcliffe at the time was entirely separate, I believe, although I haven’t looked
this up. It was physically on the campus that it was on when I was at Harvard
which was separated by quite a few blocks from the Harvard yard, and it really
was a separate institution.
So my stepfather got into Harvard Law School which he liked and thrived
in that environment. He was on the law review. One of his colleagues on the law
review was my father, Bob Kopp, and they stayed in touch after graduating from
law school, and that was one of the reasons that Arnold was in touch with my
mother after my father died. When Arnold was in law school, he knew a good
number of members of his class who were eventually to go into government to
work in the New Deal, and he was very close to Professor Felix Frankurter.
MS. FEIGIN: Can you tell us any stories about Felix Frankfurter from that era?
MR. KOPP: Frankfurter was somebody who was always very sure of himself. At one point,
and I’m not sure if it was when my stepfather was at Harvard or shortly afterward,
he decided to write a completely made-up article and give it to Frankfurter.
Whether it was a law review article or something else I’m not sure, but it was a
completely made-up article by my stepfather, and he brought it in to Frankfurter
and said, “I just discovered this very interesting article (laughter). Can you take a
look at it and tell me what you think?” So Frankfurter went over the article and
was very impressed by it and said, “This is really interesting. Maybe I should
look into it further.” And then my stepfather told him it was a gag. My stepfather
liked the idea of goading Frankfurter a little in terms of his own view of himself.
MS. FEIGIN: Frankfurter was on the faculty then?
MR. KOPP: Yes.
MS. FEIGIN: And you said your stepfather was also friends with several people who became
prominent in the government. Tell us what they did.
MR. KOPP: When he came to Washington, he moved into an apartment house on Q Street,
and he had roommates who basically were people whom Professor Frankfurter
had encouraged to come to Washington and look for jobs in the New Deal,
although my stepfather came to Washington actually at the end of the Hoover
administration. These graduates recommended by Frankfurter kept coming to
Washington, and my father moved into a house on Q Street with some of them,
and that included people like Robert Stern, Phil Elman and Paul Freund, all of
whom ended up like my father in the Solicitor General’s Office. There were
others, and I don’t know whether they actually lived in the Q Street house or not,
people like Abe Fortas and David Kreeger, who worked on the legal side of the
New Deal at the time, and who were socially part of the Q Street group.
MS. FEIGIN: We should say who David Kreeger was.
MR. KOPP: David Kreeger is a whole big story in himself. He went into the government and
was in the SG’s Office for a while. He then came to the Civil Division, and
during World War II he was head of a small unit of about five attorneys in the
Civil Division which handled appeals. That unit eventually became the Appellate
Section and then the Appellate Staff of the Civil Division.
Kreeger decided he saw a good investment out in the business field in a
company called GEICO and so he took all the funds he had, plus he borrowed,
and made a very large investment in GEICO. GEICO essentially for forty or fifty
years or so was a terribly profitable company, and Kreeger became very rich, and
for those of you who don’t live in the Washington area, you should know that he
ended up living in a very nice house which he contemplated would be an art
museum and he filled it with art, and it did in fact become the Kreeger Museum.
MS. FEIGIN: Skipping around a little bit, but because of Arnold Raum becoming your
stepfather, did you get to know some of these people as part of your stepfather’s
MR. KOPP: Yes, I met them, and I had this unfortunate characteristic of meeting my
stepfather’s friends and seeing them occasionally, and very few of them, however,
actually became part of my world. There were a couple that I became close to.
John Pickering, for instance, was a close friend of my stepfather’s and we became
very close. My wife and I became very close to John and then his daughter
Leslie, so that was something that actually did sort of have an impact on my social
life. But most of the time I would just meet these very interesting people, and I
met Kreeger a few times, and it didn’t really impact my life much, and now of
course I’m very sorry.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you interact with Frankfurter at all?
MR. KOPP: No.
MS. FEIGIN: We should say who Pickering is.
MR. KOPP: John Pickering was one of the founders of a law firm which became Wilmer,
Cutler & Pickering, and now has merged and become a super law firm, Wilmer
Cutler Hale & Dorr. It has over a thousand attorneys and is a very different place
than it was when John Pickering became one of the founders.
MS. FEIGIN: But it was a big player in D.C. Did you interact at all with Abe Fortas?
MR. KOPP: No, I just heard stories about him, and in particular, his wife, Carolyn Agger,
because she was, according to my stepfather, one very tough lady and she was the
type of woman who would go around and physically wrestle anybody and win
(laughter). She was a real powerhouse in terms of whatever she did.
MS. FEIGIN: She was a lawyer too.
MR. KOPP: Yes, she was a lawyer too, and I gather a very successful one.
MS. FEIGIN: Any stories you can share about Abe Fortas himself?
MR. KOPP: Not really. I never actually met Fortas, and of course his time on the Supreme
Court was cut short by his own behavior.
MS. FEIGIN: So back to your stepfather.
MR. KOPP: After he graduated from law school, my stepfather got a job with the
Reconstruction Finance Corporation. I’m not sure that he necessarily came to
Washington because he was interested in working in government. He came in
1932 when we were still in the Hoover administration. He was a strong Roosevelt
Democrat so there wouldn’t have been anything in the Hoover administration that
would have attracted him, but it was very hard for Jews in those days to get into
the top law firms, so I suspect that the reason that he came to Washington was
that the government didn’t present any barriers. He got a job at the
Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and then a year later moved over to the Tax
Division of the Department of Justice.
MS. FEIGIN: The government didn’t have religious barriers, but it did have racial barriers.
MR. KOPP: There were racial barriers, and I don’t know whether people even thought about
having barriers based on sex in 1933; there just were at that time no women
lawyers around. Some of them began to come into the Department during
World War II when all sorts of positions opened up to women, and the
government really never had the barriers and the obstacles to women that were
out there in private practice. In 1932, barriers even for men existed, unless you
were in certain social or religious circles.
MS. FEIGIN: So here he is working for Reconstruction Finance, and then what happened?
MR. KOPP: In 1933 he was hired by the Tax Division, and so he went there, and then in 1939,
he moved on to the Solicitor General’s Office where he after a few years became
the Principal Assistant to the Solicitor General.
While he was in the Tax Division, he argued cases in the courts of appeals.
In those days, the Solicitor General’s Office was very small. It consisted in the
neighborhood of five or six attorneys and used attorneys in the Divisions on
Supreme Court briefs. So my stepfather was often assigned to argue Supreme
Court cases, and in 1935, in fact while still in the Tax Division, he had a case that
was the first case ever argued in the Supreme Court building which was then
brand new. I never knew that until fifty years later they had a ceremony
commemorating the Supreme Court building and a picture of him there, so then
he told me about it.
MS. FEIGIN: What were some of the significant cases he argued in the Court?
MR. KOPP: I think he told me that he argued something like 50 cases or so in the Supreme
Court during his career in the Department. I’m not sure of the exact number. I
know these days it’s dwarfed by people like Larry Wallace who have argued well
over a hundred cases, but at the time, I think it was probably one of the larger
number of arguments that had ever been made in the Supreme Court. Since he
was an expert in tax law, being in the Tax Division, and some of the most
important New Deal cases involved tax law and came up from the Tax Division,
he was involved in cases like the challenges to the constitutionality of the Social
Security Act, which included Helvering v. Davis1
in 1937, where he wrote a
substantial portion of the brief, and the companion case, Steward Machine
Company v. Davis2
. The Court, of course, did uphold the constitutionality of the
Social Security Act, and my stepfather always viewed that as one of the proudest
accomplishments of his career.
One of the things I kept saying to myself a few years ago when I was
working on the healthcare litigation involving the constitutionality of the
Affordable Care Act was that I felt that I was sort of treading in my stepfather’s
footsteps and I hoped that the result will prove to be as successful as was his work
on the Social Security Act.
MS. FEIGIN: He also did some interesting prosecutions outside the Supreme Court. Would you
tell us about some of those?
1 Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619 (1937).
2 Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548 (1937).
MR. KOPP: Yes. In the 1930s, Huey Long was essentially the boss of the State of Louisiana,
and then in 1935, he was assassinated. The federal government began to look into
the corruption that what was called “Long’s Gang” had brought to Louisiana as he
had had strong influence in terms of getting many of those people into very high
positions in the state. My stepfather in 1939 was assigned to look into whether
any crimes had been committed, and he ended up having a grand jury bring
indictments against a former governor of Louisiana, the president of LSU
[Louisiana State University], and other significant individuals in the state. The
governor and the head of LSU ended up in prison as a result.
MS. FEIGIN: Were these tax crimes?
MR. KOPP: As I understand it, basically the tax law was one of the key elements of being able
to establish a violation of criminal law. I don’t know whether that was the
litigation that started the use of tax law as a way to successfully prosecute
criminals, but it obviously was one of the ones where the Tax Code was very
After my stepfather returned to Washington, he was transferred to the
Solicitor General’s Office. World War II then came along, and attorneys in the
Department of Justice who had been defending the New Deal now found
themselves defending the war effort. Part of what the government and the Justice
Department was defending was the mass removal of Americans of Japanese
ancestry from their homes, and my stepfather worked on and played a key role in
the very greatly criticized Japanese exclusion cases, Hirabayashi3
3 Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943).
. It’s safe to say that those decisions, as well as the government’s
litigation strategy which my stepfather was involved in, have not stood up well
under the test of time. Korematsu and Hirabayashi are obviously today viewed as
contrary to what we think are our basic principles. But he was part of the
government’s legal effort and he had to live with the criticism.
MS. FEIGIN: Did he argue the cases?
MR. KOPP: No.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you get to talk to him about how he viewed it in retrospect?
MR. KOPP: As a practice in our family, we found it very difficult to argue with my stepfather.
He was a judge, and actually he sort of had the type of personality where he was a
judge even outside the courtroom, and if you therefore argued too hard, he would
essentially do the equivalent of bringing down the gavel and you wouldn’t get
anywhere. So in our family we generally didn’t argue much with him. But once
in a while the Japanese exclusion cases would come up in discussion and then our
family would give him a lot of flak. I remember in the earlier times when they
came up that he would defend the result in those cases and explain that in war
when you are faced with an imminent danger, there are things you had to do that
you couldn’t do elsewhere. But his view of those cases began to change I think as
he got older, and in later discussions, he refined his position to being that as a
government lawyer you had to provide the best argument you could for your
governmental client. So I think with the passage of time he began to change his
views on the merits of those cases.
4 Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).
MS. FEIGIN: That leads to the obvious question that you as a career government attorney had to
have had cases which might have been difficult. What was your view on that kind
of thing, if at the time you had problems?
MR. KOPP: When I first came to the Department of Justice in the late 1960s, Hirabayashi and
Korematsu seemed so foreign to me. But we in our office got involved in, of
course, defending the government in terms of the legal principles in the various
wars that it was involved in during my career, and I began to realize that
sometimes you get into these cases and not only can they be very controversial,
but you keep hoping that history isn’t going to prove you wrong and that you end
up being on the wrong side in terms of the judgment of history.
In our office, we have been involved, for instance, in the Guantanamo
litigation. Awareness of my stepfather’s experience made me sensitive to the fact
that I hoped we were doing the right thing in terms of defending the government’s
position and that we were presenting the best arguments that we could and that the
judgment of history would be that that’s something that the government
legitimately had to do to protect the public. It seemed to me that being a
government lawyer and representing the government position, that’s part of the
job and that you have to do the best you can and hopefully be able to shape the
government’s position in a way where it does in fact stand not only among
contemporaries but in history as well.
MS. FEIGIN: We’ll probably get to some cases that you may have shaped in certain ways, but
just as a proposition, did you ever decline to work on a case because you felt
uncomfortable with the position the government was taking?
MR. KOPP: There were actually very few that I did, and part of it was that by the time some of
the most controversial of these cases did come up, I was more a manager than just
an attorney arguing a case. As a manager, my job was to make sure that the work
in our office was properly assigned and staffed. If I was asking one of my
attorneys to work on a case, it seemed to me that there was a very strong
presumption against my then saying well, I can’t help in terms of your work on a
case although I’m the one, after all, who asked you to work on the case. So I
really didn’t recuse myself on some of the litigation which a lot of my friends
outside the government found to be very unattractive litigation.
MS. FEIGIN: Getting back to your stepfather. Before we have him leaving the SG’s office,
were there any other cases you want to bring up that he worked on?
MR. KOPP: Well, he was extremely proud of what he did in a case called the United States v.
in the Supreme Court which involved whether state governments had
title to tidelands. The Supreme Court held that the land belonged to the federal
government and therefore things like the oil royalties belonged to the federal
government, not the states. I found in my stepfather’s papers an article he kept
from a newspaper dating from around 1990 which said that with the passage of
time, that decision had led to the United States collecting more than $100 billion
in royalties, and he wrote a little note that said that he feels he made a significant
contribution to reducing the public debt (laughter).
He was also involved in the landmark civil rights case in 1947 of Shelley v.
Kraemer6 where the Supreme Court held the judicial enforcement of racial
5 United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19 (1947).
6 Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948).
exclusions in real estate violated the Fourteenth Amendment, and that decision
was one of the key decisions in a series of cases that led up to Brown v. Bd. of
MS. FEIGIN: Did he ever talk about the politics of that case or how the government came to
take its position?
MR. KOPP: No, he didn’t, and actually I hadn’t known of his involvement in it until I was
doing some research online and came across a very interesting episode involving
my stepfather and Shelley v. Kraemer. It was something that Justice Ginsburg
talked about in a speech. Phil Elman, who worked in the Solicitor General’s
Office and was the number two person when my stepfather was the number one
person, writes about it in his book, and it’s picked up by a lot of people. It’s an
episode that is very illustrative of how far as a country we have travelled since
1947. In that case, the United States filed an amicus brief in support of the black
families represented by Thurgood Marshall who were being evicted from their
homes due to racial exclusions. And that was a subject my father was personally
very sensitive on. He was very disturbed by the racial and religious covenants on
property which were widespread at the time in the Washington area and barred
blacks and Jews from purchasing real estate.
The brief in Shelley was drafted by Phil Elman in the Solicitor General’s
Office and three other attorneys. Consistent with the Office’s tradition, in
addition to the name of the Solicitor General, who was Phil Perlman, the draft
cover page of the brief included the names of the four attorneys who had worked
on the case. Since the case was so important, it also included on the cover page
the name of the Attorney General, Tom Clark. My stepfather, who read over the
brief, noted to Phil Elman that all four attorneys working on the brief happened to
be Jewish, and he said to Elman, “It’s bad enough that Solicitor General
Perlman’s name has to be on it, to have one Jew’s name on the brief, but you have
also put four more Jewish names on it. That makes it look as if a bunch of Jewish
lawyers in the Department of Justice put out this brief.” So he crossed out all the
names on the brief except for that of Attorney General Clark and Solicitor
General Perlman. And that episode, I think, just shows you how different a world
it was back in 1947.
In the Truman administration, my stepfather had been considered as a
candidate for appointment to the D.C. Circuit, but he was competing with another
Justice Department official, David Bazelon, and Bazelon was the individual who
got nominated and appointed to that position. Looking back, it’s interesting to
speculate on how the law in the country and the D.C. Circuit would have
developed had my stepfather been appointed instead of Judge Bazelon. While my
stepfather was a New Dealer, he was in many respects quite conservative.
Sometimes around the house he said in the privacy of his own home what he
thought of some of Bazelon’s opinions. My stepfather would have been a very
different D.C. Circuit judge than Judge Bazelon.
MS. FEIGIN: Did he ever talk about the politics of that appointment, how it came to be that he
lost out to Judge Bazelon?
MR. KOPP: He did say that he wasn’t very good at building alliances and winning supporters
as was Bazelon. And I think, since I knew him well, that’s easy to see because he
was much more of a take-it-or-leave-it type of person in terms of personal
relationships. It can help a nominee to have political as well as legal skills, and he
wasn’t really very good at doing things that required him to win support.
MS. FEIGIN: Were he and/or your mother politically active?
MR. KOPP: I knew him only when he was a judge. After losing out for the position that went
to Bazelon, my stepfather was nominated by President Truman to the Tax Court,
and he was confirmed and began his service in 1950 and served on that Court for
48 years until his death in 1998. Although he took senior status in 1976, he
continued virtually full time until his death in 1998. In the 48 very prolific years
that he was on the Tax Court bench, he was a key force in the development of the
MS. FEIGIN: Are there any cases that you think are worth mentioning from that era?
MR. KOPP: Since I’m not a tax practitioner, I’d hate to go into that. I know that at some of
the receptions that I would go to in his honor, his colleagues and other people who
practiced tax law would be very flattering in terms of what they would say about
him and his influence on the law, and he won many citations and honors during
his career as a judge.
MS. FEIGIN: So I guess we should talk a little bit about him and your mother.
MR. KOPP: My mother started dating Arnold Raum after my father died in 1953. The Tax
Court, while it’s based in Washington, is one of those courts where the judges go
out and ride circuit, and so my stepfather was often assigned calendars in
Los Angeles, and that sort of assisted the dating relationship.
MS. FEIGIN: Kind of what happened with you and your wife down the road. But we’ll get to
MR. KOPP: And in 1957 they got married and our family moved to Washington, D.C.
MS. FEIGIN: What was your reaction to that?
MR. KOPP: Well at the time, I was in high school, in the middle of 11th grade, and I was quite
satisfied with the high school in Los Angeles that I was in, so I wasn’t terribly
happy to begin a new semester with a move to Washington. My mother and my
stepfather were quite nervous about how I and my sisters would react to the move,
not to speak of also having a brand new stepfather just a few years after the death
of our father. They enrolled me in the local high school in Washington, D.C.,
which was Western High School. Western was a fine high school. It many years
later became a special school for the arts. When I moved to Washington in 1957,
it was one of the top high schools in the city, and both of my sisters after me went
to it and they got a very good education there. However, I was a boy, and in
1957, all D.C. high schools had a rule that male students were required to take
Junior ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps]. So when I got to Western, I
found myself spending an hour a day in ROTC which looked to me like it was
strict military training, and I had never experienced anything like that. When I
had been in high school in California, no one there had thought that military
training was important enough to be a required subject in high school, and I was
not terribly happy about taking that course. My parents were very concerned
about my reaction. In those days, one could transfer from the District of
Columbia school system to Montgomery County school system by paying $500,
and my parents decided that it was worth the $500 to make that move and keep
me happy. So I ended up going to Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, which is
actually not terribly far from where I live today in Bethesda.
MS. FEIGIN: I understand from the family lore that there was a bit of a bribe to you to get you
to move to D.C.
MR. KOPP: Yes. As I said, I was not very happy about the move to Washington, and my
uncle Martin Gang talked to my mother and they decided that it would make
things easier for me in the move if we had a color television, which was not
common in 1957.
MS. FEIGIN: I would just interject here to say that I myself did not have one until the 1970s, so
that was quite a novelty.
MR. KOPP: So the color TV did help a little bit (laughter), although it turned out that was a
stage in my life where I actually was starting to watch less and less of television,
and it probably ended up being something that my sisters actually appreciated
more than I did.
MS. FEIGIN: We should also say, for putting this in historic context, in those days most shows
were not telecast in color, and if they were, my recollection is, and correct me if
I’m wrong, that it was specially noted in the TV section because it was unusual.
So even having one you did not see that many shows in color.
MR. KOPP: That’s right.
MS. FEIGIN: Do you want to talk a little about life in D.C., or would you like to use this as a
MR. KOPP: I think we might as well stop at this point.
MS. FEIGIN: Okay. Next time we’ll pick up with life in D.C. and on to your career. Thank you