Leonard Boudin (1912-1989): Renowned civil liberties lawyer and advocate for FSP in Supreme Court

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Leonard Boudin described himself a few weeks before his death as “not a political man.”

But Boudin became famous and respected as a defender of leftists: old and new, avowed and accused, domestic and international. His clients ranged from veterans of the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who were witch-hunted in the 1950s, to the Socialist Workers Party in the ’80s. Boudin represented the governments of Cuba, Chile under Salvador Allende, Greece, Algeria, Libya, and British Guiana and was General Counsel for the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.

And he came from political stock. His uncle, Louis Boudin, also a brilliant lawyer, was part of the early American socialist movement, counting among his friends Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg.

What Boudin meant by saying he was not political is that he never joined in the rough-and-tumble of party politics, with its campaigns, factions, and daily organizing. Instead, he worked as an advocate, teacher, and student, most at home in courtrooms, classrooms, and law libraries.

But he held party activists in high regard. He believed that engagement in partisan politics is the highest expression of civic responsibility.

So it is perhaps not surprising that Boudin, at 77, would cross a continent to come to the aid of the Freedom Socialist Party and the Freeway Hall Case defendants.

Barely a month later, on the night of November 24, Boudin died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan after a heart attack. The news shocked and deeply saddened those of us who, though our acquaintance was short, already counted Boudin a colleague and friend.

When the Washington State Supreme Court accepted review of the case, Boudin had earned our heartfelt gratitude by agreeing to fly out from New York City to the Pacific Northwest for oral arguments on October 23, offering his time without charge.

He was moved to take such an active role, he said, because the case’s uniqueness makes the court’s ruling especially significant. Boudin knew of no prior case in which a minor political party was required to disclose minutes. He said that the “extraordinary number of amici” (co-signers on the National Lawyers Guild friend-of- the-court brief) is a testament to how strongly people identify the minutes grab as a new “opener for oppression.”

As thoroughly unassuming as he was cosmopolitan, Boudin charmed case supporters at a dinner party in his honor two days before the Supreme Court hearing. His new and old friends gathered at the home of defendant Guerry Hoddersen and her sister Heidi Durham, who risked losing the house by putting it up as bond to halt Richard Snedigar’s vicious collection attempts (FS Vol. 10, No.4). Boudin praised the work of defense lawyers Valerie Carlson, Fred Hyde, and Dan Smith, teasing that they were doing such a splendid job that he was tempted to just turn around and jet back home.

Boudin’s humor, though frequent, barely disturbed either his typically grave expression or thoughtful, deliberate pattern of speech-characteristics that antagonists must have found unsettling when facing him from the wrong side of a courtroom.

Boudin became widely known during the McCarthy era for interceding on behalf of people victimized by the witchhunts. Among the 20 or so cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade case, in which the court struck down a Justice Department order requiring the volunteers in the fight against fascism in Spain to register as subversives. Boudin also represented Paul Robeson, the internationally sought-after Black actor and singer, in a seven-year battle over the government’s refusal to give Robeson a passport because he would not disclaim membership in the Communist Party.

In an interview before he left Seattle, Boudin said that his work had been “directed largely to the right to know. The right to travel is important because Americans should not be obliged to get all their information about foreign affairs from State Department press releases.”

In scores of appearances before HUAC and similar committees, Boudin argued that the right to privacy barred inquisitions into people’s political associations. But, said Boudin, the courts of the late 1940s and early ’50s “refused to uphold the right to be silent about political association.”

The right to privacy, Boudin said, is “the right to be let alone.” He explained that it was first raised on the U.S. Supreme Court by Justice Louis Brandeis in a dissenting opinion. The court majority ultimately accepted Brandeis’ position in wiretapping cases, and developed it in litigation over birth control, abortion, and the confidentiality of NAACP records.

When America’s dissidents went on the offensive again in the 1960s, Boudin was ready. He defended anti-Vietnam war activists Daniel Ellsberg and Dr. Benjamin Spock against conspiracy charges and helped Black leader Julian Bond, another opponent of the war, take his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives when the legislators tried to bar him.

The war came home for Boudin in the most intimate way when his daughter Kathy, a member of the Weather Underground, was forced into hiding after a 1970 bomb explOSion, and then arrested 11 years later for taking part in an armored truck robbery in which a guard and two police were killed.

Boudin and his wife Jean, a poet, called or visited Kathy at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility several times a week and Boudin continuously worked toward shortening her 20-year sentence. He was proud of the literacy and other programs Kathy initiated in prison and described her as someone who “cares deeply and genuinely about other people.”

Boudin believed that the Bill of Rights is threatened by a “terrible anti-communism” promoted by those in power. This “has an impact on the courts,” Boudin said, but he pointed to the controversy over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court as an example of “the American public articulating their concern over constitutional rights.”

For more than five decades, Leonard Boudin was a standard-bearer for fundamental liberties. He fought to make “the ability to be robust in one’s opinions” an equal-opportunity freedom, as available to reformers and revolutionaries as it is to bank presidents and twin-party politicians.

We who worked with him on the Freeway Hall Case will never forget his enormous contributions toward making the USA more just, enlightened, and civilized. These were Boudin’s personal characteristics in a vicious, soiled age, and we will miss him.

Not a political man? No other word describes a man who, with courage and unflagging dedication, spent a lifetime working for the unrepressed flow of political ideas and political activity.

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