By Ben Stavis
Morton Stavis was a leading civil rights and civil liberties lawyer from the early 1940s until his death in 1992. He defended targets of government abuse and protected constitutional rights with energy, dedication, skill, creativity, and dignity. He also defended lawyers when facing contempt of court or disbarment, generally for defending their clients too vigorously. Mort did not win all his cases, but he always won the gratitude of his clients, who knew they had received the best defense possible, and frequently the respect of his opponents as well. Much of his work involved networks of cooperating lawyers from around the country and was pro bono.
Born in New York City, he went to Townsend Harris High School, City College, and Columbia University Law School, serving on the Law Review, graduating in 1936. Upon graduation, unable as a Jew to find work at a Wall Street law firm, he went to Washington, and was appointed to the Social Security Board in October 1936. One of his tasks was to analyze the constitutional litigation surrounding the recently passed Social Security Act. In 1938, he left the Board to serve an Assistant to Senator Robert F. Wagner in Washington and Albany, when the senator was leader of the Democratic minority in the New York State Constitutional Convention.
In 1939, he returned to the Federal Security Agency (more like social security than national security). This new Agency included the Social Security Board.
He joined the union of government workers, the United Federal Workers, and became president of the local. He met Esther Auerbach, who was serving as the chair of the legislative committee. They were married on October 19, 1939. (I was born exactly two years later, their second anniversary present.) His friends from law school and Washington remained close friends for all his life.
Quite soon, he was involved in civil rights and civil liberties law. As early as 1941, he represented a Black government worker in a fight against racist employment practices. He sought the advice of well known Black attorney and professor Charles Houston, and won the later’s confidence. He also represented fellow members of the government workers’ union. Apparently FBI head J. Edgar Hoover abhorred the idea of unions in general and especially detested the idea of a union for government workers. He started an investigation to intimidate prominent union members. Mort counseled union members and reassured them of their rights. He charged no fees but won their life-long friendships. I spoke to several of these old friends, and they called him a “lifesaver.”
In 1943, he moved to New York City, where he worked for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, CIO (UE). Two years later he moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to serve as the attorney for New Jersey UE workers. He was involved in the very bitter Singer Sewing Machine Company strike of 1948. (The level of bitterness is suggested by the fact that his brother-in-law came armed to stay at the house for a while.) He was also involved in the Henry Wallace campaign for president in 1948. The UE disintegrated by the early 1950s under the red baiting attacks of McCarthyism. Mort set up a small, general practice, private law office, in which he took a wide range of cases to survive — real estate transactions, wills, divorces, criminal matters, virtually any and everything. After a few years of this practice, he no longer was an ivory tower specialist. He knew lawyering in virtually every field. Ultimately, by the 1960s, he was hired to represent an architect who was sued when one of his building collapsed. Mort learned about concrete, design, construction techniques, etc. He was successful, saved the architect’s practice, and to some extent developed a specialized practice in construction litigation that provided a stable income.
From the mid 1950’s, he found time to practice the law he wanted — making law a tool for justice and social reform. He defended people’s rights of free speech when HUAC subpoenaed them. In addition he counselled people about their constitutional rights whent the FBI wanted to “interview” them. Documents released in December 2007 confirm what Mort suspected then, that the FBI was developing a list of people who might be jailed without any due process or legal rights in the event of a “national emergency.” These documents confirm the great threat to the constitution and rule of law that the FBI was presenting (check documents.)
He also worked on racial issues. Hehelped Black men who were victims of police brutality — four decades before the Rodney King videos helped everyone else understand this reality. He argued that an all white jury was not a jury of one’s peers, especially when the accused was a Black man in Alabama on trial for allegedly raping a White woman. Based on his early work in the 1950’s, he joined the Civil Rights movement in 1964, and helped provide the legal infrastructure for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
After the Chicago Trial of 1970, he defended attorney Bill Kunstler and others from charges of contempt of court. He successfully defended the Gainesville 8. When a DA rummaged the home of young political organizers, he not only defended the organizer and his wife but turned the table and eventually sued the DA for stealing papers and Senator Eastland for receiving stolen goods! After 18 years of litigation, including trips to the Supreme Court, he won a substantial judgment that provided the funds for continued legal work.
In 1968, he joined with Bill Kunstler, Ben Smith, and Arthur Kinoy to found the Center for Constitutional Rights, of which he served as President. The Center provided an institutional structure for Mort to pursue his brand of law and to train young lawyers in it.
Mort never seriously considered retiring. He loved this legal work and kept at it. In the late 1980s, he helped the Philippine government try to recover loot Marcos had taken. He was not intimidated by international law. He treated this case simply as a case in which New York real estate had been purchased with stolen money.
He defended many progressive lawyers from charges of contempt and attempts of disbarment. (Bill Kunstler provided Mort many opportunities to develop this specialty of law!)
His last case was one of his most interesting. A young woman had been convicted of sexually abusing dozens of children in a day care center and given a sentence of 46 years in jail! The conviction was based on the “testimony” of young children, surrounded for years by prosecutors’ investigators and psychologists, and shielded from defense psychologists. Although some were reluctant to defend someone charged with sexual abuse, Mort saw this as a simple case involving the Constitution and its guarantees of due process and the right to confront witnesses. Mort died just after he wrote the last document for this case but before the final argument. Mort’s close friend Bill Kunstler made Mort’s last argument in the court. Ultimately Mort (with help from Bill) proved that the children’s testimony had been manipulated and that the case was about hunting witches, not sex abusers. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the conviction and charges were eventually dropped.
Mort was raised in an orthodox Jewish home. After he left home, he was not observant of the rituals of Judaism, but was deeply moved by the ethical values. I am sure that religious values fueled much of his efforts for civil rights and liberties. He was also concerned about Israel. He deeply yearned for peace in Israel and between Israel and its neighbors. He knew that a just society could not be built in the midst of violence. And he knew that Palestinian terror would be matched by Israeli violence. He visited Israel many times and did what he could to support movements dedicated to peace and reconciliation.
Throughout his life, Mort struggled for justice under the law. While today “strict constructionism” has been warped in meaning, Mort saw the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as profound guarantors of critical freedoms. He took them far more seriously than many flag wavers. Another guiding principle for him was racial equality and justice. He took on the toughest cases involving civil rights; he trained numerous young Black law students and lawyers. If he had a not-so-hidden agenda, it was to help Blacks and Jews realize their shared objectives and to support each other in their struggles for justice.
Mort did not always agree with his clients, but felt his clients deserved the best possible defense. In some cases, he was defending the Constitution as much as his client. He felt the government should have to prove its case in a professional manner, beyond reasonable doubt, and should have to follow the law and the Constitution. He often felt that clients should be given mercy and a second chance, as well as justice.
While he believed everyone charged with crime deserved a vigorous legal defense, he did not believe that he had to represent everyone and anyone. He never represented anyone charged with terrorism or racketeering. Despite complex and interesting legal issues, he did not represent Palestinians charged with terror. At one point, a mafia leader on trial asked Mort to argue the simple point that a defendant had a right to the lawyer of his own choice, a legal view Mort firmly held and had argued before the Supreme Court. The offer came with a substantial fee for the day in court. Despite his support for the legal position, Mort felt it was an offer he could refuse; he gracefully declined.
Mort was deeply proud of the award given to him as a distinguished alumnus of Columbia Law School. Posthumously, he was also honored by a New Jersey Jewish organization for his contributions to the Jewish Community.
Somehow, with all this legal work swirling around, he found time to be a loving husband, father, and an adoring grandfather. Despite his work, he came home for dinner and gave himself at least a month vacation. He took most weekends off. His favorite escape was sailing and maintaining his sailboat.
One of the mysteries to me is how he managed to do so much. He had extraordinary energy and could focus his mind with incredible discipline. He could write a brief on a heeling, pitching sailboat. When he decided to stop a heavy smoking habit, he simply did. When doctors suggest he lose weight, he did, for good. When they suggested exercise would reduce blood pressure as well as drugs, he used a stationary bicycle with perfect discipline. But he had help. His wife for over fifty years, Esther, gave constant help and support in all ways, and he was able to inspire devotion and hard work from all of his employees and associates. And he was able to draw on his wide and constantly expanding network of close and admiring friends.
He died in 1992 of head injuries suffered in a fall. At 77 years old, he was in excellent health and still going strong. His funeral was held the Jewish way, the next day. Word of mouth brought almost 500 people to the service, simple testimony to the number of people who admired and loved him. His tombstone reads, “To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
After his death, I started to make plans for a biography, emphasizing his contribution to law in various fields. I outlined some of the different fields of law, and listed some of the critical cases involved. It is a long list. I have not been able to take the time to collect the documents of these cases in court houses around the country. My father spent over 50 years creating this magnificent career. It should not be a surprise that documenting it would be a huge task. This outline will give some indication of the scope of his professional life.