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State’s legal elite celebrate a milestone

Levin H. Campbell chatted on stage with Attorney General Maura Healey.

Attorney general's office

Levin H. Campbell chatted on stage with Attorney General Maura Healey.

It was more than just a joyful historical milestone that brought scores of Massachusetts’ legal elite to the 20th floor of a state office building last week. It was an affirmation of the power of the attorney general’s office and importance of an independent judiciary.

The top lawyers were celebrating 90-year-old Levin H. Campbell and the 50th anniversary of his being appointed first assistant attorney general, a key post in the office. Campbell’s storied career includes two degrees from Harvard, working as a lawyer at Ropes & Gray, a term as a Republican state representative from Cambridge (yes, you read that right), four years in the attorney general’s office working under AGs Edward W. Brooke and Elliot L. Richardson, and decades as a top federal judge, mostly on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

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Sitting on stage with Attorney General Maura T. Healey, Campbell recalled the character of the men he worked for in the late 1960s before they went on to higher office — Brooke, a US senator; and Richardson, US attorney general, among other high-level positions.

He recalled Brooke as one of the most “charming, and able, and intelligent people on his feet that I’ve ever met. I would compare him in many ways to President Kennedy.” He said when Brooke was confronted by a phalanx of microphones at a press conference, his staff sat back and smiled because they knew Brooke had the details of whatever he was talking about mastered. (Healey noted Brooke and Campbell put together a landmark friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Voting Rights Act.)

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Campbell remembered Richardson for his “tremendous integrity.” Campbell said even though people thought Richardson, a Brahmin to his core, had a reputation as “an austere New Englander,” he was quite caring — asking after staff members if they had a cold, for instance.

But Campbell also had a broader message for the crowd, which included Superior Court Chief Justice Judith Fabricant, a former Campbell clerk; Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh, who oversaw the one of the murder trials of Aaron Hernandez and is also a former Campbell clerk; Lon Povich, Governor Charlie Baker’s chief legal counsel; esteemed constitutional lawyer Thomas R. Kiley, himself a former first assistant attorney general; and top staff in Healey’s office.

“Nothing is more important than the rule of law,” he said. “The first thing, if you were going to be a dictator, is you destroy the press. But very close on the heels of it, it seems to me, is you have to destroy the independent judiciary and an independent office like this. The legal system is not just judges, it’s a mixture of the bar and of legal offices of this sort, all of which have to function properly in order to give us the kind of government we are privileged to live under.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.
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