Friday, May 15, 2015

Herbert Resner and the Decline of Radical Lawyering

Perhaps a close look at any legal community would reveal its share of interesting characters, but if you're studying lawyers in San Francisco, it doesn't take too long to get the impression that the Bay Area’s attorneys were a particularly eccentric lot. Melvin Belli was probably the most famous. Between his high profile tort and criminal defense cases, his flamboyant personality, and his love of the media, Belli may have been one of the best known lawyers in postwar America.

Yet Belli was only one of a cohort of San Francisco lawyers with a similar approach to the practice of law. George T. Davis, Jake Erlich, James Martin MacInnes, and Marvin Lewis (who makes an appearance in Forging Rivals when he championed fair employment practices legislation as a member of the Board of Supervisors in the early 1950s) all combined a spirited defense of underdog clients with a hunger for publicity and a love of the better things in life.

Herbert Resner was a less well-known member of this group. He came to prominence in San Francisco legal circles in the late 1930s, shortly after his graduation from Boalt Hall. At the time, he was a left-wing (possibly communist) lawyer who represented radical trade unionists like Tom Mooney (with Davis) and Harry Bridges (with MacInnes). The California Communist Party was another client, as were many of the Bay Area’s CIO Locals. He shows up in Forging Rivals as the lead attorney in James v. Marinship – a case that limited California unions’ power to have racially exclusive membership policies – but the focus of his practice was not civil rights. Instead, he spent most of the 1940s and 1950s suing employers on behalf of injured workers, particularly in the maritime industry, and sharing offices (and many cases) with Belli. In 1960, he was disbarred for mishandling client funds. He was reinstated in 1967, and expanded his practice into the management of Bay Area rock bands. In the early 1970s, he was sued by Carlos Santana for mishandling his business affairs.

The careers of this cohort of lawyers trace a fascinating arc that calls for more study. Coming from non-elite backgrounds, they all made fortunes defending underdogs. Yet by the 1970s, many had become caricatures of themselves: ethically challenged, nouveau riche lawyers whose conception of the oppressed had changed from labor radicals, African American civil rights advocates, and injured dockworkers to Nazi war criminals, disgraced televangelists, and down-on-their-luck celebrities. While Resner was not as extreme as some of his compatriots in this respect, the familiar trajectory of his career is suggestive. Perhaps there is a relationship between the enervation of many of the radical lawyers from the 1930s and 1940s and the path that liberalism found itself on during the same period. Many historians have noted the emergence of a more individualistic, market-based, anti-statist political culture in the 1970s. It may be that it was not simply our lawyers who traded Harry Bridges for Carlos Santana, but the country as a whole.