Jackson List: James B. Donovan, Before the “Bridge of Spies” | John Q. Barrett
by John Q. Barrett (St. John's University School of Law)
The new film “Bridge of Spies” reports, in on-screen text, that it is “[i]nspired by true events.” Tom Hanks plays a character named James Donovan. He is a 1950s New York City lawyer. He represents insurance companies in policy coverage controversies—in one, the issue is whether his client, the insurer, is liable for the damages that an automobile driver caused by hitting five motorcyclists.
Then Donovan is recruited by the bar and bench in Brooklyn to represent Rudolf Abel, whom the United States has arrested and charged with being a Soviet spy.
What qualifies “insurance lawyer” Donovan to take on this high profile criminal defense job at the depths of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War? Well, as a colleague mentions to Donovan, “You distinguished yourself at Nuremberg.”
Donovan’s response is both an acknowledgement and, implicitly, a disclaimer that he is the right attorney to handle Abel’s defense: “I was on the prosecution team.”
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Seventy years ago, the real James Britt Donovan indeed was a young but senior and very significant member of Justice Robert H. Jackson’s U.S. prosecution team before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg. This post sets forth—including as background for your viewing of “Bridge of Spies,” which I recommend highly—some of Donovan’s life story, including his Nuremberg work.
James Donovan was born in New York City in 1916. His father was a medical doctor, and quite successful. Jim attended Fordham University, graduating in 1937. He attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1940. He was hired by a New York City law firm, Townley, Updike and Carter. After passing the New York bar examination, he worked there for two years, primarily defending insurance companies and newspapers.
After the U.S. became involved in World War II, Jim Donovan took a leave from his law firm and moved to Washington. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD)—a research organization, under the direction of Vannevar Bush, that assisted the military—as its associate general counsel. He soon became its general counsel.