Thursday, November 30, 2006

Meltsner, The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer

A generation of lawyers who manned the legal barricades during the civil rights era are providing another important service in their golden years: they have been writing memoirs. One of the more prominent of these is Jack Greenberg’s Crusaders in the Courts. Lately I’ve been reading Fred Gray, Bus Ride to Justice, the memoir of a man who began his law practice in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1954, only to have Rosa Parks as one of his first clients. He would find himself in the Supreme Court for the first time to argue the voting rights case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), armed with the amazing map that changed the city boundaries of Tuskegee to carve African Americans out of the voting population of the city.

An important new addition to this genre is Michael Meltsner, The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer. Meltsner’s is very much an internal story of his immersion in the movement of his day, just on the cusp of taking the country by storm when he graduated from Yale Law School in 1960. And therein lie some interesting lessons. For example, he recounts of his visits with one liberal lawyer after another, while trying to decide what sort of work to pursue, when he was told over and over to work for a large firm or well-heeled client, make some money, and donate it to liberal causes. It was finally his professor Alexander Bickel who told him that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work for Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, saying plainly: "This is the job for you."

Jon Goldberg-Hiller’s review of Meltsner has just appeared in the Law and Politics Book Review. It begins:
For the sociolegal scholar in a post-civil rights era (Schacter 1997), Michael Meltsner’s memoir of his professional life as a lawyer with the Legal Defense Fund is a layered treat. One part is romantic indulgence, a glimpse back into a time when civil rights had some progressive clout, when Jews and African Americans worked side by side for racial equality, and where a cause lawyer could experience "the teary, breathtaking, yearning, better-take-a-deep-breath feeling that comes from being there when people make the move of their lives and you identify with it, maybe even helped them make it" (p.76). A second part is a confirmation, clarification and sometime challenge to many of our central theories about cause lawyering on behalf of progressive social movements and the power that courts had and still have to remake our political worlds. A third part that I will leave to the delighted reader to explore personally, is the compelling literary engagement with a fascinating lawyer, and his professional, strategic and personal interactions with his teachers (Alexander Bickel stands out here), his clients (Muhammad Ali among them), his colleagues (Jack Greenberg, and Thurgood Marshall) and the familiar cases whose backgrounds and backlash he recounts (FURMAN, MCCLESKEY, GREGG, GRIGGS and BROWN).

The overwhelming sense that the civil rights era has passed into a world of growing inequality and permanent African American disadvantage (Shapiro 2004), narrowing access to courts, conservative anti-rights initiatives designed to rollback affirmative action and gay rights (Keen and Goldberg 1998), and a Supreme Court with uncertain allegiance to its own civil rights precedents (among just a few) has led to a deep ambivalence if not full-blown skepticism about the power of law and the tactic of litigation to create enduring social change (Glendon 1991; Rosenberg 1991; Scheingold 1974).[We would add to this Klarman, 2004.]...Although the sociolegal reader familiar with the empirical legal mobilization and cause lawyering literatures that Meltsner does not cite (McCann 1994; Sarat and Scheingold 2005, 2006; Scheingold and Sarat 2004) will already be prepared with the ambivalent sense that rights work as both resource and constraint, that the value of legal mobilization must be measured in many subtle ways, and that [*892] cause lawyers contribute to social change best with litigation as much as with politics (McCann and Silverstein 1998a), Meltsner’s optimism brings a new perspective. Indeed, if the growth of recent sociolegal theory has been impelled by a sense of post-civil rights skepticism about law, Meltsner illustrates that this knowledge is nothing new to LDF lawyers and that there are sophisticated ideas about the legal toolbox to learn from personal toil in the courts.

For the rest, go here.