Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary
Scholar and constitutional authority Alan Morton Dershowitz is a well-known, controversial, and successful U.S. appellate attorney. A professor at the Harvard School of Law, he has a reputation for taking on the cases of little-loved criminal defendants. His list of clients is a who’s who of notoriety, ranging from wealthy socialites to a pornographic film star and a convicted spy. Dershowitz has captured attention both in the courtroom and out, as much for his sometimes brilliant legal strategies as for his ubiquitous books, articles, and TV appearances. A staunch defender of First Amendment freedoms, civil and human rights, and Jewish issues, he has earned praise and enmity for his influence on U.S. law.
Dershowitz, born September 1, 1938, in Brooklyn, was raised in the orthodox Jewish area of Boro Park, New York. He attended Yeshiva University High School, where a principal advised the unexceptional but talkative student to seek a career “where you use your mouth, not your brains” (Keegan 1992). He apparently ignored that advice, graduating magna cum laude from Brooklyn College and gaining admittance to Yale Law School. As a law student, he quickly distinguished himself: he was named editor of the Yale Law Journal in his second year, and his research on the relationship of psychiatry to the law was such that Harvard offered Dershowitz a teaching position upon his graduation. Finishing at the top of his class in 1962, he postponed the Harvard offer to clerk for Chief Judge David L. Bazelon, of the U.S. Court of Appeals. This clerkship was followed by another with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur j. Goldberg.
Appointed associate professor at Harvard Law School in 1964, Dershowitz went on to become, three years later, the youngest tenured professor in the school’s history at 28. His specialty, criminal law, did not prevent him from continuing the academic research he had begun at Yale, and he co-authored the standard casebook Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry, and the Law (1967). He also began a lifelong immersion in liberal political issues. As protests over the Vietnam War galvanized campuses around the United States, Dershowitz created a course on legal concerns raised by the war, which inspired similar courses at numerous law schools. He worked privately on behalf of several antiwar protesters, including Harvard students facing disciplinary proceedings and the antiwar leader Dr. Benjamin M. Spock. In 1972, he drafted a successful appeal for William M. Kunstler, a radical lawyer convicted of contempt of court for his defense of the Chicago Eight antiwar activists at the 1968 Democratic convention.
Free speech concerns animated Dershowitz to fight censorship of pornography. In his view, “There is simply no justification for government censorship of offensive material of any kind.” Even if pornography can be shown to lead to violence against women, Dershowitz opposes any controls on it. His position is that of a classic First Amendment absolutist: fight bad speech with good speech, but do not limit speech.
Dershowitz made his first U.S. Supreme Court argument in 1969, attempting to remove a Boston ban on screenings of the internationally acclaimed Swedish film I am Curious (Yellow). Championed by intellectuals such as Norman Mailer, the sexually explicit film was the first of its kind to be distributed commercially in the United States. Dershowitz successfully argued before a three-judge court that the First Amendment protected the rights of consenting adults to view whatever they chose in a discreet setting. After the Supreme Court remanded the case, the prosecution was dismissed and the ban was lifted.
In 1976, Dershowitz handled the appeal of Harry Reems, a star in the pornographic film Deep Throat. Several years after acting in the film, Reems had been convicted on federal charges of taking part in an ongoing conspiracy to transport it across state lines. Dershowitz won a new trial for Reems, and the Justice Department later dropped the indictment.
The attorney took his first criminal case in 1972. His defense of Sheldon Seigel, accused of making a bomb used by the terrorist Jewish Defense League (JDL), established a pattern that Dershowitz would follow throughout his career: a commitment to civil liberties and constitutional rights regardless of the notoriety or apparent immorality of his clients. The bomb Seigel was said to have made had exploded in the Manhattan office of arts impresario Sol Hurok, killing a young woman. While associated with the JDL, Seigel had also been a government informer. When the case came to trial, the government denied making a deal protecting him from testifying against his associates. Using secret tape recordings of his client and government agents, Dershowitz destroyed the prosecution’s claims. An appellate court ruled against forcing Seigel to testify, and the case against the JDL suspects was dismissed for lack of evidence. Dershowitz later said he cried upon realizing that he had gotten Seigel acquitted, thinking about the woman killed by the bomb. Yet the case had allowed him to challenge what he saw as systematic unconstitutionality in the government’s handling of informers.
Defending other unpopular clients has sometimes earned Dershowitz the criticism of his peers. The attorney nonetheless accepts cases few other lawyers will touch, making him, in the words of Time magazine, the “patron saint of hopeless cases.” In 1975, he was widely criticized for agreeing to represent Bernard Bergman, a New York City nursing home operator, on appeal of his conviction for Medicare Fraud and attempted bribery. The press and the public had vilified Bergman for running a chain of nursing homes in which elderly patients were abused. Dershowitz tried, unsuccessfully, to have Bergman’s one-year sentence reduced to four months, arguing that the special prosecutor in the case had violated a plea bargain.
In 1980, Dershowitz represented two brothers, Ricky Tison and Raymond Tison, who were convicted and sentenced to die for the crime of felony murder. The brothers had helped their father, Gary Tison, escape from prison; the father subsequently took part in a murder. Dershowitz raised the question of whether the brothers could be executed for a murder they did not plan or commit. In 1987, he argued for their lives before the Supreme Court, which remanded the case and ordered a new hearing.
A 1982 appeal for socialite Claus von Bulow catapulted Dershowitz to greater public attention than had any of his previous endeavors. Closely watched by the press, von Bulow’s trial seemed the stuff of best-selling fiction. He had been convicted of attempting to murder his wife, heiress Martha (Sunny) Crawford von Bulow, by injecting her with insulin—presumably, to lay hands on her millions. On appeal, Dershowitz made multiple arguments for reversal or retrial. He contended that his client had been the victim of an unconstitutional search, that evidence had been withheld from the defense, and that new medical evidence raised doubts about the insulin found in Crawford’s blood. The appeals court reversed von Bulow’s conviction in April 1984, and at a subsequent trial, with Dershowitz directing the defense strategy, a second jury acquitted him in 1985. The attorney wrote an account of the trial, Reversal of Fortune (1986), which later became an Academy Award-winning film.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dershowitz seldom escaped public notice for his work on behalf of a string of controversial clients. He represented, among others, Leona Helmsley, a hotel magnate convicted of tax evasion; Michael R. Milken, a Wall Street junk-bond financier who pleaded guilty to six felonies; Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel; and Mike Tyson, a former heavyweight champion who was convicted of rape. Dershowitz lost these appeals, but not for want of trying. His tactics routinely include a vociferous use of the media, on the assumption that judges and juries are influenced by what they see and read. Besides numerous interviews, he also has taken out full-page ads in the New York Times on behalf of clients, for example, Milken.
Dershowitz was in the limelight as a member of the “Dream Team,” assembled to defend O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges in October 1995. Like many others involved in the case, Dershowitz published a book, Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case (1997). Not all Dershowitz’s clients, however, are celebrities. He conducts pro bono work for those unable to afford a lawyer, let alone his reputed $400-an-hour fee, and is credited for founding the Innocence Project to assist prisoners in asserting their innocence.
As an appellate lawyer, Dershowitz estimates his chance of losing a client’s appeal at 95 percent, saying, “I’m like a brain surgeon brought in after the tumor’s been discovered.” He cites constitutional concerns as his justification for his choice of clients. Others have accused him of greed and grandstanding. His one-time ally, the late Kunstler, was one such critic, bemoaning what he considered a former idealist’s selling out. No stranger to criticism, Dershowitz gives as well as he gets. He frequently addresses audiences, writes articles, gives press conferences, and conducts debates with his critics and those with whom he disagrees. In the mid-1980s, he attacked the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan as “dangerous for our constitutional health.” A major area of battle for him in the early 1990s was the trend on university and college campuses toward “political correctness,” which he views as stifling to free speech and detrimental to education. Denouncing the trend, Dershowitz said, “We are tolerating and teaching intolerance and hypocrisy.”
Committed to working on behalf of Jewish rights, Dershowitz traveled to the Soviet Union in 1974 as part of the Soviet Jewry Defense Project. This U.S. group submitted appeals on behalf of 14 Russian Jews and two non-Jews sentenced to prison terms for conspiracy after their emigration visas were refused. The effort helped to bring about the early release of several prisoners, who immigrated to Israel. Dershowitz also attempted to represent Russian dissident Anatoly Scharansky but was blocked by Soviet authorities. A tireless foe of anti-Semitism whose office door is decorated with hate mail, Dershowitz argued in his best-selling 1991 book Chutzpah that U.S. Jews have too long accepted being second-class citizens. Named for the Yiddish expression for brashness, Chutzpah made an impassioned plea for greater pride: “We need not be apologetic or defensive about our power in America.” The book won high praise from Nobel laureate Saul Bellow and others, although some Jewish intellectuals regarded it as overzealous.
Dershowitz continues to be a prolific and highly topical writer. In 2001, Dershowitz, a strong supporter of Al Gore’s presidential bid, published Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000. In 2002, he published books on two subjects that were at the forefront of national attention: Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge and Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age.
After the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Dershowitz garnered a great deal of attention and controversy when he wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times in which he posited that if United States authorities were to engage in torture to extract information from prisoners, judges should have to issue “torture warrants.”
In addition to his numerous writings (including over one thousand op-ed articles), Dershowitz continues to lecture in the United States and around the world. He also delivers legal commentary on TV and radio shows, as well as Internet broadcasts. Dershowitz maintains his ties with Harvard Law School where he has been the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law since 1993.
Dershowitz has received many awards honoring his work for civil and human rights. These include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979, a commendation from the New York Criminal Bar Association in 1981, and the William O. Douglas First Amendment Award from the anti-defamation league of the B’nai Brith in 1983. He has also received honorary degrees and awards from Yeshiva University, Syracuse University, Hebrew Union College, the University of Haifa, Monmouth College, Fitchburg College, and Brooklyn College. In 1996, he received the freedom of speech award from the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts.
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This glossary post was last updated: 8th October, 2021 | 0 Views.