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Controversy crops up in courthouse naming

The judges, their clerks, librarians, secretaries and the accused will be moving into the gleaming new federal courthouse on President William McKinley Circle in several weeks. To set the proper historical background, we'll name Niagara Square for the assassinated Republican president whose memorial obelisk is perched in the center.

To date, the congressman whose honor it is to name the place, Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, has not filed the needed legislation. This may be because what was once an ambivalence about the courthouse name has been nudged into an indecision, yes, a controversy by a law professor at St. John's University on Long Island, John Q. Barrett.

Barrett is the biographer and the champion of the late Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals. Jackson, born in Pennsylvania, was raised in the Jamestown area, and practiced law there and in Buffalo before being recruited during the New Deal for a series of eminent jobs, including U.S. attorney general.

Barrett's campaign for putting Jackson's name on the building, which included a speech recently at the University at Buffalo Law School, is among the reasons why the idea has caught on with Chief District Judge William M. Skretny, former District Attorney Edward C. Cosgrove and reportedly with Judge John T. Curtin, and probably with many other judges and lawyers.

Jackson's finely wrought appeals and brilliant court rulings carry a profound appeal to the lawyer's mind and to people's highest hopes for what justice ought to be.

At the same time, the naming of important public buildings is a matter of a community's heart.

So it follows there are those who would like the courthouse to honor Dr. Alison Des Forges, a human rights activist who died in the Flight 3407 crash in Clarence; Sister Karen Klimczak, SSJ, founder of Teaching and Restoring Youth, who was murdered in a halfway house; or Army Lt. Col. Matt Urban of Buffalo, winner of the Medal of Honor.

At the very top of this other list, however, stands Buffalo's greatest war hero, second in prominence only to Buffalo's twice-elected President Grover Cleveland: Army Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan. Raised a mile away from the new courthouse in the old First Ward, Donovan attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Niagara University.

After Sgt. Alvin York, Donovan was the most decorated soldier in World War I, earning the Medal of Honor, two Purple Hearts and many other battle awards. Herbert Hoover tapped Donovan, a prosperous Manhattan lawyer, to manage his successful 1928 presidential campaign. Donovan's biographers claim Hoover broke his promise to make Donovan attorney general because he was Catholic. Instead, he was named federal prosecutor for Buffalo.

President Franklin Roosevelt tapped Donovan to help prepare the United States for war. After meeting with Winston Churchill and other European leaders, Donovan talked FDR into making him America's wartime intelligence boss and is considered the father of the Central Intelligence Agency. President Dwight Eisenhower called Donovan "the last hero."

There are a dozen bills filed in this Congress to name or rename courthouses, some just planned or under construction. There are none dealing with Buffalo's. One reason Higgins may have delayed is because he represents both South Buffalo, where sentiment for Donovan is strong, and Jamestown, where Jackson is a hero.

If the delegation waits much longer to act, the Senate as well as the House may turn Republican after 2012 and a boomlet to name the building for the late Jack F. Kemp, the football star, GOP congressman and Housing secretary, may catch fire down here.

email: dturner@buffnews.com

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