Remembering William Kunstler

November 13, 2009

Back in the late 1980’s I was a young New York lawyer practicing criminal defense and struggling to make a living. One rainy afternoon I walked into an old run down courtroom in the Manhattan Criminal Courts building. The judge had directed me to return at 2:00 p.m. , but, as usual, there was no sign that the court proceedings would resume any time soon, and it was almost 3:00p.m. I was annoyed, since I had so much to do and I couldn’t afford to be sitting around, wasting time. As it turned out, there were only two cases on the calendar left to be heard. As I walked into the courtroom I noticed that there was one other lawyer sitting there, so I approached him to ask whether the clerk had been out yet. When he turned to answer me, I recognized the craggy face and unkempt white hair immediately. I stopped in my tracks, and told him (truthfully) that he’d been a hero of mine since I was a teenager. He graciously shook my hand and expressed his own disappointment about the delay.

When the judge finally showed up, his case was called first. Kunstler made a pitch for his client to be released without bail. This was a misdemeanor part, so the charges against his client weren’t all that serious. Before he could finish his argument, a young Assistant District Attorney stood up and began interrupting him. Her tone was condescending and rude, and she mispronounced Kunstler’s name. The judge let her go on for a minute or two, then said to her: “His name is William Kunstler. Does that mean anything to you?” She had no response. The judge then said “I’ve heard enough, the defendant is released in his own recognizance”. Throughout this exchange, Kunstler never raised his voice and continued to treat his young adversary with respect. It made an impression on me, because back then I kind of prided myself on being argumentative and sometimes nasty with prosecutors, thinking I was zealously defending my client. I had a lot to learn, as did that prosecutor,and I still do.

As the years went by my politics changed, and I didn’t always agree with William Kunstler’s expressed opinions and ideology. What never changed, though, was my respect for him as a defense attorney and advocate. I also respected him for his commitment to the Constitution. During his career he served as director of the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU), and he was a co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights(CCR).

William Kunstler had his flaws as a man and as an attorney. He readily and candidly acknowledged as much in his autobiography My Life as a Radical Lawyer. The Internet Archive contains an interesting video interview with Kunstler given around the time of the publication of this book. There did seem to be some inconsistencies with his philosophy. He once refused to represent a right wing group, stating “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love”. Fair enough, but how could that square with his decision to represent members of the Gambino crime family?

Still, throughout his career William Kunstler fought hard for his clients, and he fought hard for the United States Constitution. In the end, that’s what being a lawyer is supposed to be all about.

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