The Maryland State Bar Association joins the legal community in mourning the loss of an iconic former U.S. attorney general and public servant, with the passing of Benjamin R. Civiletti on Sunday, October 16, 2022. He was 87.
Civiletti graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1957, and then earned a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1961. In 1962, he became an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore. In 1964, he joined the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard as a litigator and eventually became a partner. Civiletti joined the U.S. Department of Justice in 1977 as an assistant attorney general. In 1978, he was named deputy attorney general. President Jimmy Carter selected him to serve as attorney general in July 1979.
Civiletti was the first attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act by investigating White House aides Hamilton Jordan and Tim Kraft. He served as Attorney General during the Iran hostage crisis and assisted President Carter in his efforts to release the American hostages. Civiletti appeared before the International Court of Justice at the Hague representing the United States’ efforts to gain their freedom. He also argued many important cases on behalf of our government before the U.S. Supreme Court. Civiletti’s long-lasting contribution to the Justice Department was establishing and compiling written legal policies and procedures for government investigations that the department customarily used in practice, but not formalized.
Civiletti’s legal career spanned more than 45 years. He returned to Baltimore to practice law after leaving the Justice Department specializing in commercial litigation, banking, white-collar crime, government regulation and corporate governance. At the time of his death, Civiletti was Chairman Emeritus and Retired Partner of Venable LLP.
Civiletti’s contributions to the profession not only include his work as attorney general, but also his commitment to serving students and legal education. The Benjamin R. Civiletti Scholarship Fund was established in 2003 at the University of Maryland School of Law to honor Civiletti and is given to “an outstanding student with academic promise, demonstrated leadership, and commitment to public service.” Reena Shah, Executive Director of the MSBA-support Maryland Access to Justice Commission, was the inaugural recipient of the Civiletti Scholarship in 2003. “Civiletti’s impact through the scholarship to enable public-interest minded students to enter the legal profession without law school debt has allowed me and other recipients to commit themselves to public interest law and in turn, continue to spread his legacy of service,” said Shah.
MSBA bestowed honorary membership on Civiletti in 2012, in recognition of his outstanding and continuing service to the association and to the legal profession. A member of the Maryland Bar Foundation, Civiletti received the H. Vernon Eney Endowment Fund Award in 1995. Pleading Causes of Action, a comprehensive treatise now in its 7th edition, is dedicated to Civiletti. Co-author and attorney Paul Mark Sandler remembers Civiletti as “not only a great lawyer inprivate practice and public service, but also a modest down to earth human being. His contributions to the legal profession and to the public are immeasurable. He will be missed, but his memory will live on.”
Civiletti famously quipped, “as a lawyer, I always said I couldn’t afford myself,” when asked about billing clients at a rate of $1,000 per hour and one of the nation’s most expensive private attorneys.
Civiletti is survived by his wife Gaile, and their three children Benjamin, Andrew, and Lynne.