Legendary Lawyer Doris Brin Walker Dies; Represented
Angela Davis, Smith Act Defendants
Aug 16, 2009 By Marjorie Cohn
Marjorie Cohn's ZSpace Page / ZSpace
the National Lawyers Guild, died on August 13 at the
age of 90.
defender of human rights. The only woman in her
Doris defied the odds throughout her life, achieving
significant victories for labor, and political activists.
decades and some of the most turbulent but significant
against Jim Crow and McCarthyism, was active in the
civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and
actively opposed the current wars in
as a member of the California State Bar,
the Communist Party
death. Upon graduation from law school,
practicing labor law; but a few years later, she went
to work in
When Cutter Labs fired
appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the
Court refused to hear the case, Justice Douglas, joined
in dissent by Chief Justice Warren and Justice Black,
wrote, "The blunt truth is that Doris Walker is not
discharged for misconduct but either because of her
legitimate labor union activities or because of her
political ideology or belief. Belief cannot be
penalized consistently with the First Amendment . . .
The Court today allows belief, not conduct, to be
regulated. We sanction a flagrant violation of the
First Amendment when we allow
through her highest court, to sustain Mrs. Walker's
discharge because of her belief."
people charged under the Alien Registration Act of 1940
(the Smith Act) in
resident aliens to register with the government,
enacted procedures to facilitate deportation, and made
it a crime for any person to knowingly or willfully
advocate the overthrow of the government by force or
violence. The work of Doris and other NLG lawyers led
to Yates v.
overturned the convictions of Smith Act defendants in
1957. After Yates, the government never filed another
prosecution under the Smith Act.
During the McCarthy era,
before the House Un-American Activities Committee and
she also represented several HUAC witnesses. From 1956
Powell, who faced the death penalty, against Korean War
sedition charges. The
articles Powell had written reporting and criticizing
written with intent to hinder the war effort. When a
mistrial ended the sedition case, the government
charged the Powells with treason. Attorney General
Robert Kennedy dismissed the case in 1961.
A partner with the NLG firm of Treuhaft & Walker in
Oakland, California from 1961 to 1977,
focused on civil rights, free speech and draft cases
during the Vietnam War. She also defended death penalty
cases. Perhaps best known for her defense of Angela
Angela's acquittal on charges of murder, kidnapping and
conspiracy. In that case, which Harvard Professor
Charles Ogletree in 2005 called "clearly the trial of
the 20th century, and one that exemplified the vast and
diverse talents of the true Dream Team of the legal
profession," the defense pioneered the use of jury consultants.
bruising battle during which one opponent labeled her
"a man in a woman's skirt." She paved the way for the
election of five women NLG presidents in the ensuing years.
Serving as Vice President of the International
Association of Democratic Lawyers from 1970 to 1978,
Doris supported the struggles of victims of U.S.
imperialism throughout the world and was instrumental
in the development of international human rights law.
observers at the South African Truth and Reconciliation
Commission hearings led by Desmond Tutu.
investigation of representations the Bush
administration used to justify the war in
Noted writer Jessica Mitford and Doris were close
friends for years; Jessica was married to Robert
Jessica to join the Communist Party, the latter
replied, "We thought you'd never ask!" There is
speculation that author J.K. Rowling, who cited Jessica
as her main literary influence, named her Harry Potter
house elf "Dobby" after seeing Dobby
Jessica's books. On a recent visit to her home, Doris
showed me the Dobby references in works by Jessica on her bookshelf.
opinions about the issues of the day and in the NLG.
She remained intensely engaged in politics until the day she died.
progressive lawyers, law students and legal workers to
struggle unrelentingly for justice and equality. She
was a friend, comrade and role model to scores of
people in and out of the NLG. We will never see the
likes of her again.
Marjorie Cohn is president of the National Lawyers
Guild and a professor at
Law. She is the author of
Bush Gang Has Deifed the Law and co-author of Rules of
Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military
Dissent. Her anthology, The
Abuse, will be published next year by NYU Press. See