Bernard W. Nussbaum (born March 23, 1937) is an American attorney, best known for having served as White House Counsel under President Bill Clinton.

Background and career[edit | edit source]

Nussbaum, the first child of Jewish immigrant parents, was born in New York City and grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan. He was educated in the New York City public schools and graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1954.[1] He went to Columbia College in New York as a scholarship student where, in his senior year, he became editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator. He was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1958 he graduated from Columbia and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After his first year he was selected to join the Harvard Law Review and in his final year became Note Editor of the Review. Upon completing law school in 1961, Nussbaum was awarded a Harvard University Sheldon Traveling Fellowship enabling him to travel around the world for a year visiting over 30 countries. On his return he served for six months on active active duty in the United States Army and then was a member of the Army Reserves. In 1962 he was sworn in as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York, in the office led by Robert Morgenthau. He was a federal prosecutor for over 3 years and tried a number of major criminal cases.

In 1966 Nussbaum joined the New York law firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, one year after the firm was founded, He remains a senior partner in the Wachtell, Lipton firm and specializes in corporate and securities litigation. In recent years, he was the lead trial lawyer in a number of major cases won by his firm. These include obtaining a judgment from a Delaware court ordering the consummation of a multi-billion merger between Tyson Foods and IBP,Inc. In 2004 he won a jury verdict, on behalf of the developer of the World Trade Center, against a number of insurance companies declaring that what occurred on September 11 at the Trade Center was two separate events. This significantly increased the amount of insurance due and resulted in a multi-billion payment to the developer for the rebuilding of the Center. Recently, because judicial salaries in New York had been frozen for more than a decade (the legislature refused to raise judicial salaries unless its salaries were also raised), Nussbaum represented the Chief Judge of the State of New York and the Judiciary of the State, without fee, in successful constitutional litigation ultimately decided by the New York Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals declared that holding judicial salaries hostage to legislative salaries was unconstitutional. As a consequence, the Legislature and the Governor agreed to change the system for determining the compensation of judges. Decisions regarding judicial salaries are now being made every four years by an independent commission rather than the executive and legislative branches. In August 2011 the first commission appointed raised the salaries of New York state judges (then $136,700 for trial judges) to the level of federal district judges ($174,000), the increase to be phased in over a two and a half year period which began in April 2012.

Watergate[edit | edit source]

In December 1973 Nussbaum left his law firm to serve as a senior member on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee investigating the Watergate scandal. He was involved in overseeing the fact gathering process (which included analyzing the White House tape recordings made by President Nixon) and in presenting the results of that inquiry to the House Judiciary Committee. In July 1974 the Committee, by a bi-partisan vote, voted to recommend to the House of Representatives that the President be impeached. Shortly thereafter, in August 1974, President Nixon resigned. During that year Nussbaum met and worked with Hillary Rodham who was also a member of the Committee staff. After President Nixon resigned, Nussbaum rejoined his law firm.

Counsel to President Clinton[edit | edit source]

In 1993, Nussbaum again left his law firm when he was appointed Counsel to the President of the United States. During his tenure as President Clinton's White House Counsel he was involved in a number of major personnel and policy issues facing the administration. These included the appointment of Janet Reno as Attorney General, the recruitment of a new FBI director, and the selection of approximately 100 federal judges, most notably Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court of the United States. He was also involved in handling the early stages of the Whitewater matter and the investigation of the suicide of his deputy, Vincent Foster. Contrary to the advice of others on the White House staff, in the administration and in Congress, Nussbaum strongly urged the President not to seek the appointment of an Independent Counsel with respect to these matters. He maintained there was no basis for such an appointment as there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the President either before or after he entered office. Nussbaum warned the President that the institution of the Independent Counsel, which is responsible to no one, tends to become (especially when it is investigating a President) an uncontrolled, never ending effort to find wrongdoing even where none exists. He predicted that conservative judges would replace anyone appointed by the Attorney General with a choice more to their liking. He predicted the investigation would likely last as long as the President was in office and beyond. The President nonetheless decided to request the appointment of an Independent Counsel. In his memoir (My LIfe) published after he left office, President Clinton wrote that the single biggest error he made as President was asking for the appointment of an Independent Counsel -- "It was the worst presidential decision I ever made, wrong on the facts, wrong on the law, wrong on the politics, wrong for the presidency, and the Constitution." (My Life, p. 574). Referring to media criticisim of Nussbaum's advice, the President wrote: " there would have been no investigation, subpoenas, or grand jury if I had listened to him and refused to give in to the demands for an independent counsel to 'clear the air.' Bernie's real offense was that he thought I should abide by the rule of law and accepted standards of propriety, rather than the constantly shifting standards of the Whitewater media, which were designed to produce the very results they professed to deplore." (My Life, p. 587).

Resignation and subsequent events[edit | edit source]

Nussbaum resigned on March 5, 1994,[2] as a result of the Whitewater controversy and the position he took regarding the appointment of an Independent Counsel. (President Clinton later wrote: "Bernie Nussbaum resigned in early March; he never got over my foolish decision to ask for an independent counsel, and he didn't want to be a source of further problems ...[he was an] able, honest public servant." (My Life, p. 586)). He returned to his law firm and resumed the private practice of law. Following his resignation the Whitewater Independent Counsel looked into the conduct of the White House Counsel's Office in connection with the so-called Filegate matter (involving the erroneous sending of FBI background files to the White House),[3] but no improper conduct was found.[4] In 1993 Nussbaum was awarded an honorary LL.D from The George Washington University National Law Center. He also serves on a number of philanthropic boards of trustees, including the board of The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. In 2008 Nussbaum married Nancy Kuhn. His first wife, Toby, to whom he was married for 42 years, died of pancreatic cancer in 2006. He has three children and four grandchildren.

References[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Legal offices
Preceded by
C. Boyden Gray
White House Counsel
Succeeded by
Lloyd Cutler
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