Lawyers of the Left

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Barry Sheppard

Lawyers for the Left
In the courts, in the streets, and on the air
By Michael Seven Smith
OR Books, New York/London, 2019, 258 pages, $18 paperback.
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THIS IS A timely book. As Heidi Boghosian writes in her Foreword:  “America is in a constitutional crisis. A haughty executive branch flaunts the rule of law. Nine jurists comprise a politicized Supreme Court that churns out cases along party lines. Lawmakers have lost what little backbone they had. Meanwhile, locally, law enforcement officers seem to gun down African American men and boys with complete impunity. It’s no wonder that the public has lost faith in the justice system. Our system of checks and balances is in disarray.

“Lawyers for the Left is an antidote for those disillusioned by the rule of law’s demise. It offers up a series of engaging and intimate profiles in integrity. The stories in these pages will give readers hope: they bring to life a healthy resistance by a special breed of lawyers actively taking on seemingly intractable problems.”

The bulk of the book is a series of portraits of some of the most outstanding lawyers, from the 1940s up to the present, who have devoted themselves to defending those fighting for social justice on many fronts — labor, women, antiwar activists, Blacks, Latinx, religious minorities and many more, including socialists and communists — against attacks against them by the capitalist government.

Some of these portraits are in the form of essays, and others are interviews on a radio news program, Law and Disorder, that airs on station WBAI in New York. It was started by three lawyers, Michael Smith, Heidi Boghosian and Michael Ratner, themselves important “lawyers for the left,” after George W. Bush launched the illegal invasion of Iraq with bipartisan support, and Congress overwhelming passed the Patriot Act that further eroded the Bill of Rights.

I learned a lot about these lawyers from the book, including what kind of people they were/are. This was especially true about those who were interviewed. There are details about the cases and issues, still important today. There is also humor — I found myself chuckling at certain parts. It’s a good read.

Some of the lawyers profiled explicitly acknowledge that the main purpose of laws under bourgeois democracy is to defend capitalism and the capitalist ruling class. But they also recognize important parts of law that purport to recognize democratic rights that theoretically apply to all, and social gains that have been won by mass action from below.

The Bill of Rights itself was won by the masses in the First American Revolution (the War of Independence from Britain). The  Constitution did not originally include these rights — they were amendments forced upon the “founding fathers” by the threat of farmers, workers and artisans to launch a new revolution to win them. Many of these rights originated in opposition to repressive practices against the population by the British.

All the lawyers profiled in the book agree that these gains can be used to legally argue against government assaults. And they recognize that the legal struggle is only one aspect of the general struggle for the issues and organizations involved and must be backed by mass actions.

But that doesn’t mean that the legal struggles are not part, and a necessary part, of the broader struggles. And all the lawyers have dedicated their lives to being “lawyers for the left.”

A Fighting Generation

Michael Smith, a ’60s radical, pays tribute to the generation before him: Victor Rabinowitz, Leonard Boudin, William Kunstler, Conrad Lynn, Ramsey Clark and Bruce Wright. “Their work began in the labor struggles of the ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s they defended those attacked by McCarthy and then went south in the early days of the civil rights movement.” Their work continued in subsequent decades.

Rabinowitz was central to the work of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) in the 1960s and early 1970s. The NLG was formed in 1937, as an alternative to the conservative American Bar Association. It was itself the subject of attack during the anti-communist witch-hunt, and suffered at that time, but survived and remains important today. The book has much to say about the NLG and another organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Rabinowitz and Boudin founded a law firm in 1944 that “became one of the outstanding progressive law firms in America.” They argued several cases before the Supreme Court. Rabinowitz won a ruling in 1964 that the United States had no jurisdiction over Cuba’s nationalizing firms owned by U.S. corporations.

I came to know Leonard Boudin, whom Smith correctly characterizes as “the great leftist constitutional defense lawyer of his time.” There were three cases that Boudin won concerning the Socialist Workers Party that are referred to in the book that I was involved in, as a leader of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and then of the SWP.

Early in 1963, the prosecutor in Bloomington, Indiana, said he was opening a grand jury investigation of two student organizations at Indiana University in Bloomington, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) and the YSA.

The background for this was a demonstration called by the FPCC during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, opposing Washington’s threat of launching atomic war against Cuba and the Soviet Union for the latter’s stationing of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

The YSA was an independent youth group in political solidarity with the SWP. The YSA chapter in Bloomington was instrumental in the formation of the campus FPCC, a national organization opposed to U.S. threats and actions against revolutionary Cuba.

The FPCC demonstration was violently attacked by rightist students and members of the far right John Birch Society in the city. Two in the mob were arrested, one for striking a cop and another for hitting a demonstrator. But the prosecutor then dropped charges against the goons, and opened the investigation against their victims.

I was the National Chairman of the YSA at the time, and immediately flew to Bloomington to help the Bloomington YSAers organize a defense committee to build support against the investigation.

When the prosecutor filed charges against three members of the YSA on May 1, 1963, under the Indiana Communism Act, passed during the McCarthyite witch-hunt, I consulted Farrell Dobbs, the National Secretary of the SWP, and he suggested I contact the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC).

The ECLC was formed in 1951 when the ACLU backed away from defending the Communist Party members in the McCarthyite witch-hunt. The SWP joined the ECLC’s defense of the CP, to the surprise of ECLC leaders who hadn’t expected Trotskyists to do that.

The ECLC proposed that I contact their chief counsel, Leonard Boudin, and said they would pay for his expenses. I did so, and he took the constitutional side of the case. The defense committee got wide support for its stated purpose to defend the YSA’s right to exist and that it had the right to free speech and assembly, whatever one thought about the YSA’s views.

I and other YSA leaders worked with Boudin in the course of the case, which was finally won with the Communism Act being struck down as unconstitutional in March, 1964.

Victories Over State Repression

The second case concerned a lawsuit against the government. “Leonard Boudin litigated the case Socialist Workers Part vs. Attorney General in the [12-year] litigation that ended in a historic victory in 1986,” Smith writes. “The case is extraordinarily important today.”

Boudin wrote that “this lawsuit represented the first wholesale attack upon the entire hierarchy of so-called intelligence agencies that had attempted to infiltrate and destroy a lawful political party.”

Further, “for the first time a court has really examined the FBI’s intrusions into the political system of our nation and, in unmistakable language, has condemned the FBI activity as patently unconstitutional without statutory or regulatory authority. The decision stands as a vindication of the First and Fourth Amendment rights not only of the Socialist Workers Party but of all political organizations and activists in the country to be free of government spying and harassment.”

The third case concerned the political rights of soldiers. The background was the decision of the SWP concerning members who were drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. They would openly state that they would obey all orders, but would retain their rights as “citizen soldiers” to free speech and assembly.

Once inducted, many were court-martialed for expressing their socialist and antiwar ideas to fellow soldiers. The SWP formed the GI Civil Liberties Defense Com­mittee that publicized their cases. In the mass antiwar atmosphere of the time, every one of them won their case.

Boudin, as the counsel for the GICLDC, took on one important case, where an SWP member succeeded in winning over some soldiers to form the GIs United Against the War in Vietnam at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. They succeeded in organizing an antiwar rally of 250 men in uniform on the base, for which they were thrown into the stockade.

Their story gained wide support inside and outside of the army. The literature of GIs United even found its way to Vietnam. An article appeared in the New York Times. Under this pressure, the charges were dropped.

“Denial Not an Option”

The book covers numerous other important cases involving the civil rights and Black Power movements, women’s and LGBT rights, exposure of CIA crimes, torturers in other countries but tried in U.S. courts, and many more key issues.

There is a chapter on “Criminalizing the Communist Party” in the McCarthyite witch hunt. The Smith Act, which criminalized ideas, was used to imprison many CP leaders. Many CPers lost their jobs. More were harassed and otherwise persecuted just for their ideas. Movie screenwriters were blacklisted.

CPers and other socialists and union militants were driven out of the labor movement, with the connivance of the labor bureaucrats at the top. Other socialist and radical movements were swept up in the witch hunt, which penetrated other areas, including churches. It was a stain upon America.

The author notes that the Smith Act was first used to imprison leaders of the SWP in 1941. At the time, the CP defended the Smith Act and applauded its use against the SWP. Just a few years later, the Act was used against them. This time, in contrast, the SWP defended the CP, resurrecting the old socialist cry that an “injury to one is an injury to all.”

Smith’s Introduction to the book is important, bringing the fight up to the present time through the Bush, Obama and Trump regimes. He sums up:

“The central fact of our political and legal lives is the overwhelming power the corporate capitalist state has accumulated, especially since 9/11. In a previous era, during the time of fascist dictatorships, Antonio Gramsci wrote from his Italian prison cell that we need ‘Pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the heart.’

“My friend Peter Weiss, a former vice-president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, now in his 90s, added to Gramsci’s resolve:

“Denial is not an option,
Despair is not an option,
Resistance is the only option.”

January-February 2020, ATC 204

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