Judge Andrew Napolitano '72 is a national syndicated columnist and a senior judicial analyst at Fox News, providing legal commentary, where he has been for 20 years. He sat down with the 'Prince' to discuss his time at Princeton, and the rise of "fake news" and his own experience dealing with the issue.
The Daily Princetonian: Why did you apply to Princeton, and how would you describe your Princeton experience?
Andrew Napolitano: Well, I received a full scholarship to Princeton, which enabled me to attend. I come from a blue-collar family, and in the first-generation in my family to attend any university, much less Princeton. So, it was a great gift for which I continue to be grateful. I majored in history, if you look at the records of The Daily Princetonian from that era, 1968-1972, you’ll see that I was incredibly active in campus politics. There were not very many conservative political activists on campus in that Vietnam era, pre-Watergate era. But, I was among them. It was a fabulous experience that I look back on with quite fondness. There were a lot of ideological and intellectual clashes in the classroom as well as the undergraduate assembly and elsewhere. But, I would retain it tomorrow and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
DP: Could you talk a little more about your major, and how you decided to study it?
AN: Well, I probably decided before I got there, but I majored in history, in my case it was mainly American history. But, at the time, the history department wouldn’t let you major in just the history of one country or one region. So, I also studied European history and Roman history with a notorious professor by the name of Frank Bourne, who was immensely popular with students, and he taught courses in Roman history and Roman law, and a lot of the students going to law school took his course. I also took a course by the late, great Walter Murphy called Constitutional Interpretation, a class first crafted by Woodrow Wilson when he was a professor at Princeton. A course which then, nearly everybody who was planning to go to law school took. I assume it’s the same today, it’s taught by Robbie George today.
DP: How did you wind up serving on the New Jersey Superior Court? What kind of cases did you here?
AN: In Jersey, judges are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate for seven years, and when reconfirmed, then you have it for life. So I was appointed by a fellow Princetonian, Tom Kean [‘57], for whom I had worked as a very young lawyer in his first election campaign, which was the subject of a recount, and he won it by 1,700 votes out of 2.5 to 3 million cast. Governor Kean was very generous to me, and was looking for someone who was young, had an Ivy League education, and who wanted to make the judiciary a career, and I seemed to fit his mold. The New Jersey Superior Court has jurisdiction over everything in the state, state and federal matters, and hears everything from jaywalking to murder, from divorces to complex commercial disputes, and everything in between. I probably have sentenced about 1,000 people, presided over more than 150 jury trials, and handled thousands of motions, applications, non-jury procedures of every stripe and variety that you can imagine. I was given my lifetime tenure position when Governor Christine Todd Whitman reappointed me to the bench. I obviously didn’t serve the full term, since I left ostensibly to go back into private practice, but television beckoned, literally a couple of weeks after I left when the O.J. Simpson trial came along, and CNBC, for which I worked before Fox, engaged me to be one of their legal experts in the O.J. case.
DP: Is there a reason you decided to leave the judiciary?
AN: You know I publicly stated my reason about a 100 times, and it sounds a little crass but it’s true: I was tired of being poor. My work on the judiciary had evolved into a lot of teaching. I was teaching full-time at Seton Hall Law School, and I was lecturing all over the country, where we’re not allowed to be compensated for it. It was an era where young lawyers were making a lot more than judges were in their first year of practice right after law school. I suppose if I had been among the elder judges, rather than among the younger, who had already accumulated a nest egg, I might have looked at it differently. But at the time Tom Kean appointed me, I was the youngest in the state, I’m still the youngest to have achieved, or it’s not an achievement since it’s biological, still the youngest to have received a lifetime position. But the prohibition on lifetime incomes and the low judicial salary drew me back into private practice, in my own case, not imagining that television would come along.
DP: How does your prior service as a judge affect the way you approach and analyze the news? Does it give you a different perspective?
AN: It does, it does. You know, I have been teaching for many years the Constitution at Delaware Law School and Seton Hall Law School, and now at Brooklyn Law School. So I tend to look at what the government does through the focus of a person who has studied the Constitution, and also through the focus of a judge, thinking what I would do if I were there. I try to take the side of the Constitution, rather than the side of one of the litigants in the case, probably because of my years as a judge. At Fox, for example, I serve a couple of roles, one is to explain the law and the Constitution, and in my case as well Economics 101. So, those not educated in the law, in the Constitution, or in Economics 101 can understand it. Because of my fairly well-defined ideological views as the house libertarian here, I’m also called upon to express my small government view of these issues. It’s just the way my work here has evolved. I’ve written nine books on the Constitution, and they’re titled “It’s Dangerous to be Right When the Government is Wrong,” “Nation of Sheep,” you know they’re all written from the small-government, Jeffersonian, Madisonian, since we’re talking about Princeton, view of the Constitution, as opposed to the Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson view of the Constitution.
DP: We hear a lot about “fake news” in the media, thrown around by people of both sides of the aisle, so what are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
AN: Well, you know I really don’t know how to put a handle on fake news, other than it is something that is profoundly untrue, which is advanced by news media as if it were true. I think sometimes the news media advances it and thinks it’s true, I don’t think they’re involved with the fakery or the origin of what turns out to be fake news. On the other hand, for the President summarily to dismiss unwanted news by calling it fake is a political stunt on his part. So there’s some wrong on both sides and some right on both sides. He has suffered allegations, which in my view were untrue, but he has also dismissed truths by claiming that they’re fake. I myself have been the subject of fake news, these things happen when you engage in controversy. I don’t take it personally; it can be a little uncomfortable at the time. It seems to be more of a phenomenon now than it had been in the past, and it has to be subjected to rigorous investigation and truth-telling before it can be advanced.
DP: You brought up the fact that you yourself have been targeted by allegations of “fake news,” specifically concerning British intelligence supporting President Trump’s wiretapping assertions. Could you talk about that incident, and do you think there was any ulterior motive to pushing you off the air?
AN: Well, I recounted what sources told me, sources that have been credible in the past and turned out to be correct, which was that British intelligence had been spying on Trump since 2015. It caused an uproar, I think, by people who thought I was shilling for Trump because it seemed so outrageous. The uproar was furthered by a refutation directly from 10 Downing Street itself, something that 10 Downing Street rarely, rarely does, particularly with respect to something stated in American news media. I’m not going to be critical of my bosses, but I believe that taking me off the air for six days, seemed like six months but it was only six days, was believing that the tumult would die down, believing it would be easier to do my regular work once I came back. But when I came back, they had one of my colleagues interview me and he said, “Do you stand by your story?” and I said, “Yes I do.” These sources were true, and they’re going to be proven true, and sure enough about two weeks later, about five British [intelligence] agents went to The Guardian in London and said, “That judge in New York that everyone is skewering is correct. The NSA and the [GCHQ, British Intelligence] have been spying on Trump since 2015.” And of all places, my adversaries at CNN reported that I was correct. You know, these things happen, it’s now just a footnote. But the fake news aspect of it really got out of control. I was walking my dog in Central Park and a guy said to me, “Judge I love you!” I turned around and looked at him, of course he had a camera on me, and he goes, “You’re the one who told Trump that Obama tried to kill him!” Kill him? So, you can see how this stuff gets grossly exaggerated, God only knows where he got this from, I didn’t see it in print anywhere. I just sort of waved and left him to his own rantings and ravings, but these things get exaggerated. If you take them personally it can drive you crazy.
DP: What suggestions do you have then for your colleagues in the media, since it seems like the news media is getting more polarized?
AN: Yes, I think there’s a lot of my colleagues in the media who are as distraught today as they were the day after Trump was elected. They despise him so much, and they want to undermine his presidency. You know, having lived through the resignation of Richard Nixon, for profound reasons, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton, for utterly frivolous reasons, this dramatic that they want the country to go through this again, we’re facing very difficult and very perilous times. I understand their animus against him, and his personality, and the way he treats them, and the way he governs, it just adds fuel to their fire. Look, I’m not in the news end of things here at Fox, I’m in the opinion end. I have very strong opinions as well, as you know, and I am paid to articulate and explain those opinions. So when my colleagues on other news outlets do that and are open and honest about it, I respect them. When they do it under the guise of reporting news neutrally, I don’t respect them.
DP: How do you then get news back to being independent and unbiased?
AN: Listen, I’m an absolutist on the First Amendment, so I would condemn any efforts to make the government less transparent or to make the First Amendment protections any less than they are now. The remedy for bad speech, or hurtful speech, is not suppression of speech but more speech. I’m not on the news side here, I’m on the opinion side, and I get paid to articulate my opinion, and if I give reasons for the opinion, then my bosses are happy and I have earned my paycheck, and I respect when others do that. But I don’t respect when others claim to be neutral, reporting the news neutrally but really have a bias. You have a bias, you think that Trump’s a jerk, you think that he’s mentally unqualified to be President, you want to drive him out of office, acknowledge it! Express all the opinions you want.
DP: Shifting gears a bit, I know that you own a farm in northern New Jersey. Is that something you’ve always been interested in doing?
AN: No, it’s something I stumbled upon, right around the time that I began television. It has generated in me an appreciation for the Earth and the environment, far beyond anything that I have ever had. And it has generated a love of natural sciences, which has caused me to study many things on my own, which I didn’t do in high school and college, and certainly didn’t do in law school. It’s an agricultural farm, we supply a lot of vegetables to an 1854 era hotel in Pennsylvania that has two restaurants in the hotel. We grow a lot of vegetables, apples, pears, corn, tomatoes…it’s a sea of tomatoes! And we make maple syrup, and we market all this. It’s very therapeutic. I also do a lot of my reading and writing out there, I have a personal library of 4,000 books, which is my pride and joy, one of them, and I spend a lot of time out there on weekends. It’s actually not very far from where the Princeton football team spends its Augusts, in Blairstown, New Jersey, my farm is a little north of there, but very close to where all those guys are.
DP: What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in law or journalism, or both?
AN: Well, you know I entered journalism after having been a trial lawyer and having been a trial judge, so my entry was not an orthodox one. I also entered television in an unorthodox way, with no television experience, being asked to cover something so dramatic and widely viewed as the O.J. Simpson trial. I don’t know if that would happen today, cable television is far more sophisticated. I’m in my 20th year at Fox, and this is after a year and a half at CNBC, and after a year at what used to be called Court TV, so there are a lot more regimented procedures for entering all this today. For somebody interested in television journalism, you should probably move to a small city of about 100,000 people that has a local television station, and do whatever they ask you to do, whether it’s chasing ambulances or covering the school board, and just get a lot of experience in front of a camera. But entering directly from another profession like law into the national level, as I did, is something that would be unheard of and nearly impossible in this era. I was present at the creation of Fox, and the people who were running it at the time thought it would be cool and interesting to have an ex-judge on the air, and I just happened to be the person that they picked.