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A liberal's legacy

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He stayed true to his liberal ideals throughout the post-war era and fought against the anti-communist demagogy of the 1950s, battled for workers rights and racial justice and opposed the Vietnam War. Lawyer Joseph L. Rauh left his stamp on the nation’s law and politics, as Michael E. Parrish describes in “Citizen Rauh,” published this month by the University of Michigan Press. Here, Parrish, a professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, outlines Rauh’s progressive vision and its continuing legacy.

By Michael E. Parrish

Justice Louis Brandeis once described his protégé, Felix Frankfurter, as “the most useful lawyer in America” during the 1920’s in reference to the latter’s broad impact on the nation’s legal institutions and politics. Frankfurter had been a federal prosecutor, a defender of despised radicals like Tom Mooney and Sacco and Vanzetti, an adviser to presidents, a Harvard law professor, a government administrator, a constitutional litigator, and a legal scholar-public intellectual.

In the years from World War II until his death in 1992 at the age of 81, that same title of the nation’s “most useful lawyer” could have been bestowed upon Frankfurter’s former law clerk, Washington attorney Joseph L. Rauh.

Given the large and diverse universe of celebrated lawyers who shared all or a portion of that era with Joe Rauh, the title will no doubt be disputed. One thinks of Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenburg in the arena of civil rights; criminal defense specialists such as F. Lee Bailey, Edward Bennett Williams and Alan Dershowitz; the king of torts, Melvin Belli; constitutional litigators, David Boies and Lawrence Tribe; governmental insiders,Clark Clifford and Lloyd Cutler; and the defenders of outsiders, William Kunstler, Leonard Weinglass, and Arthur Kinoy.

But Rauh’s stature, like that of Frankfurter’s, arose not from a single specialty, but from the sheer breadth of his impact in diverse legal arenas that included courtrooms, legislative committee hearings, administrative agencies, the executive branch, political conventions, and advocacy groups and that touched virtually every aspect of public law from civil liberties and civil rights to labor-management relations.

Few American lawyers fought Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson over civil rights and the filibuster, then later helped President Johnson pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and finally battled LBJ again over the Mississippi Freedom Party and the war in Vietnam.

Fewer worked with Walter Reuther to create the powerful United Auto Workers and later backed labor rebels like Jock Yablonski and Ed Sadlowski when the unions became sclerotic and corrupt. No lawyer did more to shape the civil rights platform of the Democratic Party from Truman to Kennedy and how that party allocated convention delegates. And no lawyer waged a more relentless or successful campaign against governmental repression from Truman’s loyalty-security program and Congressional witch hunts of the McCarthy-HUAC era to the CIA’s brainwashing experiments on Canadians.

As a founder of Americans for Democratic Action and the liberal conscience of the Democratic Party, Rauh backed more losers than winners: Harriman, Humphrey, McCarthy, McGovern, Ted Kennedy, Moe Udall, Tom Harkin. He would have cheered Obama’s victory in 2008, but have been among the first to criticize him, too, as he did with John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 when they strayed too far from liberal positions on civil rights and the economy.

Russell Feingold, often in dissent against party orthodoxy, would be today his ideal of a United States senator, not Charles Schumer or Harry Reid.

Joe Rauh loved old-fashioned, bare-knuckled political scraps and would have relished the prospect of joining David Boies and those who argued for Al Gore’s electoral victory in 2000. A man of deep and abiding principles with respect to equality, he would have praised Ted Olson’s legal advocacy in the California gay marriage litigation, although disagreeing with Olson on virtually every other issue.

He would have reserved his highest accolades, however, for those lawyers like Michael Ratner and David Cynamon, who led the charge to overturn the government’s misguided and dangerous policies with respect to the detainees at Guantanamo. Following his victory in the Boumediene case that reaffirmed detainees’ right to habeas corpus and struck down trial by military commissions, Ratner observed, “my whole life has been spent jousting with government.” Joe Rauh would have said, “Amen” to that. We need lawyers like Joe Rauh today, more than ever.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 26, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
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