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Samuel Leibowitz: A Mentsch for All Seasons

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By Joe Dorinson

The recent death of civil rights lawyer Jack Greenberg as reported in the New York Times (Obit, Oct. 13, 2016) recalls the once close, though later frayed link between American Jews and African-Americans in the common quest for social justice. After our successful second induction ceremony into the BJHI Hall of Fame, attention must be paid to this one-time Brooklyn resident for posthumous induction for his exemplary arguments before the United States Supreme Court in two cases that led to the landmark ruling in the Brown Case that terminated that horary doctrine of “separate but equal,” which had buttressed racial segregation until 1954.

Another Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn, Samuel Leibowitz also merits consideration for making our country a better place for all Americans. Born in Jassy, Rumania (the original home of modern Yiddish theatre) on August 14, 1893, Sam and his parents immigrated to America in 1897. Educated at Cornell University, he passed the bar in 1915. His early career as a criminal lawyer (almost an oxymoron) earned notoriety as well as income from defense of well-known criminals, including Al Capone. According to an excellent study by former colleague, Franklin Jonas in conjunction with Diana Klebanow in People’s Lawyers: Crusade for Justice in American History (2003), pp. 155-201, Leibowitz won 77 acquittals out of 78 indicted for murder.

In the middle of a successful career, perhaps pricked by a social if not guilty conscience, coupled with a yiddisher hartz, Leibowitz embarked on a radically different legal journey. Venturing into dangerous territory, Alabama, he defended nine black youths–unjustly, it turned out–accused of raping two white women in 1931 in the infamous Scottsboro Case. Given the ambience of the “Strange fruit of the magnolia-scented South,” a lynching loomed as one option after an all-white jury found them guilty. The judge, however, sentenced eight to the electric chair and one, to life imprisonment.

After the United States Supreme Court voided the verdict on appeal in Powell v. Alabama (1932) on the grounds that the nine convicts were denied due process under 14th amendment, which guaranteed the right to counsel in capital cases, the defendants were retried. They received support from the ILD (International Labor Defense). A branch of the Communist Party USA, this organization hired Sam Leibowitz a chief counsel for the defense. With a blistering cross-examination of the two female accusers, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, he elicited the fact that these two women had sexual intercourse with their white make friends, fellow travelers and hoboes on the freight train. Consequently, Judge Horton courageously, set aside the guilty verdict and called for yet another trial.

Several trials ensued, in which guilty verdicts were again rendered. During this volatile period, Sam Leibowitz endured multiple death threats and savage anti-Semitic mockery, inviting comparison with recent events sparked by this year’s election. Still, Sam stood on high ground when he appeared before the United States Supreme Court and persuasively argued (minus the assistance of ILD lawyers with whom he severed ties after they tried to bribe key witness Victoria Price to recant her testimony), that absent any black jurors, Alabama had violated  the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Thus, Leibowitz’s heroic role in Norris V. Alabama (1935) proved pivotal in changing the South’s legal landscape. In that memorable case, Sam called attention to the duplicity of Alabama’s authorities who had deliberately and fraudulently added the names of Negroes retroactively to jury rolls as a means of rebutting his evidence. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, in concert with fellow justices, agreed with Leibowitz and ordered retrials for Clarence Norris and Haywood Patterson.

After a third trial, not unexpectedly, jurors handed down guilty verdicts for a third time. Outraged by this rank racism, the usually affable Sam Leibowitz publicly denounced the blatant injustice. In response, opposing law officers–despite the commission of palpable perjury by key witnesses–smeared Sam as a “Jew lawyer…from New York State.”

Unable to secure justice–a verdict of innocence–for his clients in subsequent trials, Sam cut a deal with the prosecution, which resulted in freedom for four of the victims and gradual release of the other four in the 1940s. The last victim, known as “the Scottsboro Boy” in a book about his life co-authored with Earl Conrad, escaped from a brutal prison farm on July 17, 1948. Leibowitz also escaped after nearly five years of hard labor in defense of justice in 1937 and headed back: with four freed “Scottsboro Boys” under his personal protection away from Alabama’s “sweltering heat of oppression” to the more congenial environs of Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach, where he resided.

Returning to legal practice, Sam lost his first and only client, out of 140, to the electric chair. Evidently, shocked by this reversal, Leibowitz lost his appetite for criminal law and as a loyal Democrat secured a judgeship in Kings County. There he developed as a very tough judge for the next 30 years: aware of every trick of clever litigators like himself. Softened somewhat, Judge Samuel Leibowitz tempered justice with mercy with advocacy of juvenile justice reform as well as conjugal visits for inmates. During the scandal-plagued 1950s, however, “Sentencing Sam” showed no mercy for gamblers, book makers, crooked cops, and politicians. In this turbulent time of residual racism, ethnic strife, and divided political loyalties as characterized by the 2016 national election in this “winter of our discontent,” we could use another Brooklyn Jew with the stature of Samuel Leibowitz, whose amazing life ended in his 85th year: a “mentsch for all seasons.”