Monday, August 17, 2009

FLegendary Lawyer Doris Brin Walker Dies

Legendary Lawyer Doris Brin Walker Dies; Represented

Angela Davis, Smith Act Defendants


Aug 16, 2009 By Marjorie Cohn


Marjorie Cohn's ZSpace Page / ZSpace


Doris "Dobby" Brin Walker, the first woman president of

the National Lawyers Guild, died on August 13 at the

age of 90. Doris was a brilliant lawyer and a tenacious

defender of human rights. The only woman in her

University of California Berkeley law school class,

Doris defied the odds throughout her life, achieving

significant victories for labor, and political activists.


Doris' legal and political activism spanned several

decades and some of the most turbulent but significant

periods in US history. She organized workers, fought

against Jim Crow and McCarthyism, was active in the

civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and

actively opposed the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


At UCLA, Doris became a marxist. After she was sworn in

as a member of the California State Bar, Doris joined

the Communist Party USA, remaining a member until her

death. Upon graduation from law school, Doris began

practicing labor law; but a few years later, she went

to work in California canneries as a labor organizer.

When Cutter Labs fired Doris in 1956, the case was

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 California, acting

through her highest court, to sustain Mrs. Walker's

discharge because of her belief."


Doris returned to the practice of law and represented

people charged under the Alien Registration Act of 1940

(the Smith Act) in California. The Act required all

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. United States, in which the Supreme Court

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, Doris was called to testify

before the House Un-American Activities Committee and

she also represented several HUAC witnesses. From 1956

to 1961, Doris successfully defended William and Sylvia

Powell, who faced the death penalty, against Korean War

sedition charges. The US government charged that

articles Powell had written reporting and criticizing

US biological weapons use in Korea were false and

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, Doris' practice

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

Davis, Doris was part of a legal team that secured

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.


Doris was elected president of the NLG in 1970 after a

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.

In 1996, Doris served as one of eight international

observers at the South African Truth and Reconciliation

Commission hearings led by Desmond Tutu.


In 2004, Doris submitted a resolution on behalf of the

NLG Bay Area Chapter to the Conference of Delegates of

the California Bar Association asking for an

investigation of representations the Bush

administration used to justify the war in Iraq, for

possible impeachment.


Noted writer Jessica Mitford and Doris were close

friends for years; Jessica was married to Robert

Truehaft, Doris' law partner. When Doris invited

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 Walker's name in

Jessica's books. On a recent visit to her home, Doris

showed me the Dobby references in works by Jessica on her bookshelf.


Doris frequently called me with her concerns and

opinions about the issues of the day and in the NLG.

She remained intensely engaged in politics until the day she died.


Doris "Dobby" Walker inspired generations of

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 Thomas Jefferson School of

Law. She is the author of Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the

Bush Gang Has Deifed the Law and co-author of Rules of

Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military

Dissent. Her anthology, The United States of Torture:

America's Past and Present Policy of Interrogation and

Abuse, will be published next year by NYU Press. See



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