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My Life as a Radical Lawyer.

William Kunstler is one of the most controversial lawyers of our time. Both revered and hated, he exclusively represents the pariahs of society, and the politically oppressed, usually without a fee. Those who revere him say, he is a lawyer of extraordinary skill, social consciousness, dedication, and courage. Those who hate him say that he is a knee-jerk, anti-establishment demagogue who is primarily motivated by a passion for publicity.

Kunstler has been lead counsel in many of the most politically, charged and socially relevant cases of the late 20th century, both at trial and appeal. He has dedicated his professional fife to defending individual rights against the power of the government and the tyranny of the majority. According to Kunstler, "My function is not to represent the darlings of society but to represent the damned, those whom society wants to destroy."

My Life as a Radical Lawyer reveals the different sides of Kunstler's complicated personality, and gives fascinating insights into his many memorable and historic legal struggles. The book is coauthored by journalist Sheila lsenberg.

Kunstler's impact on the legal community and the social consciousness of the Unite States is best reflected by a partial list of the legal crusades he has championed: civil rights representation of Freedom Riders; the trial of the Chicago Seven in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention; and the criminal defense of Lennie Bruce, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Adam Clayton Powell, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the Kent State defendants, the Attica Prison riot defendants, the appeal of Marion Barry, and the World Trade Center bombing defendants. All these legal battles and many more familiar to the reader are discussed in his autobiography.

Kunstler's metamorphosis into a self-described "movement" lawyer didn't begin until after his 40th birthday. The product of a middle-class Jewish background, he graduated from Yale University, served in the armed forces during World War II, and in 1948 graduated from Columbia law School. Practicing with his brother at Kunstler and Kunstler in the 1950s, he handled the ordinary cases, mostly family law, that constitute a small practice. Kunstler also was a radio talk show host in New York City. He discussed celebrated trials and legal issues of the day with Eleanor Roosevelt, Alger Hiss, Malcomb X, and other notables.

The civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s gave Kunstler his first real opportunity to use the legal system as a vehicle for social change. In early 1961, the Congress for Racial Equality sponsored a group of mostly young people, black and white, to ride interstate buses through the South to force racial integration of bus station facilities. At every stop, the Freedom Riders were harassed, arrested, and brutalized.

In June 1961, Kunstler was asked by a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fly to Jackson, Mississippi, to ensure Freedom Riders of ACLU support. His experience in Jackson was so intense that shortly after arriving, he committed himself to representing Freedom Riders throughout the South. Eventually, he almost abandoned his private practice and litigated civil rights cases until around 1965. His creative use of a post-Reconstruction era removal statute established federal jurisdiction and helped secure the release on bail of numerous civil rights protesters.

In his autobiography Kunstler provides many insights into the politics of the civil rights movement, the legal challenges to Jim Crow laws, and his own experiences, with civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The turning point of his career was the trial of the Chicago Seven, one of the most political and publicized trials in American history. Together with Leonard Weinglass, Kunstler represented defendants charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to "incite, organize, promote and encourage" riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The defendants consisted of those whom the government perceived as leaders of the anti-government demonstrations.

Originally, U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark refused to indict any protesters at the Chicago Convention. When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, however, the new attorney general, John Mitchell, dismissed all charges against the police officers and indicted the protesters.

The actual trial became a media circus. In the face of what was perceived as obvious bias and hostility from the court, all defendants and defense counsel were openly contemptuous during the proceedings. Laughter, ridicule, and mockery were the rule, not the exception. No attempt was made to follow courtroom etiquette. "We put the system on trial by mocking it at every turn," Kunstler said.

During the trial Kunstler realized that adhering to his clients' political goal - establishing that the U.S. government acted illegally to repress opposition to its policies - was the top priority. "Thus," he said, "the trial would become a readily comprehensible political event that would make everyone aware of the government's repression and oppression of minorities, people who opposed the war in Vietnam, and members of the counter-culture."

The defense called many celebrities as witnesses, including folksingers Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie, and Judy Collins (the court refused to allow them to sing). The defense also attempted to call Ramsey Clark and Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but these witnesses were excluded.

At the conclusion of the trial, all defendants were acquitted of the most serious charge of conspiracy. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, and Tom Hayden were each convicted of a single charge - to organize, promote, and incite riot. Kunstler was also charged and sentenced to four years and 13 days on 24 counts of contempt. On appeal all criminal convictions and contempt citations were reversed. Kunstler maintains that the contempt citations are a badge of honor. His detailed description of the case brings to life all the personalities involved.

No one reading Kunstler's autobiography would nominate him for sainthood. Drug use, sexual promiscuity, and a passion for publicity are all faults to which he freely admits. Conversely, readers will have to acknowledge that he possesses an unsurpassed passion for individual rights. His numerous anecdotes are fascinating, and his zeal in the battle against oppression is contagious.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Association for Justice
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Needle, Jeffrey
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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