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Rights on Trial, The Odyssey of a People’s Lawyer, Arthur Kinoy

Arthur Kinoy

I enjoyed reading the autobiography of Arthur Kinoy, a lawyer with courage, a sense of social justice, and the motivation to put both to work defining freedom.

Mr. Kinoy was involved in a number of landmark legal verdicts. In 1965 he successfully argued the case of Dombrowski v. Pfister before the Supreme Court, which empowered federal district judges to stop enforcement of laws that had ”a chilling effect” on free speech. In 1972 the Supreme Court upheld his contention that President Richard M. Nixon had no ”inherent power” to wiretap domestic political organizations. Mr. Kinoy was one of the lawyers defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  NY Times.

In his Rights on Trial, Kinoy describes his insight into the lawyer as the social justice advocate advancing the law and his clients’ interests:

But what the school did offer was invaluable. Through exposure to the thinking of its brilliant teachers of law, I obtained one fundamental insight which was to serve me in good stead in the years to follow, and which became my basic tool in fashioning legal concepts into weapons of struggle with the establishment. This was the realization that flowed from the in-depth analysis of teachers like Richard Powell, who constantly stressed that all concepts of law are in a constant process of growth, development, and change, that nothing in law is written in stone, including, he pointed out with a wry smile, even the Ten Commandments. The art of the lawyer is to understand these dynamics. By comprehending the processes by which legal ideas are shaped and changed, the lawyer can play an active rather than passive role in fashioning and shaping these concepts. From Richard Powell, Elliot Cheatham, Jerome Michaels, and Walter Gellhorn, despite differences in their social perspectives, came this important insight into the fundamental role of the lawyer. It departed from the widely accepted view which was expounded to the general public by the establishment and by the bar itself, that the lawyer is a skilled technician who merely invokes the inflexible principles of an immutable legal structure.

A recognition that the lawyer is in reality an activist, shaping the ideas and concepts ‘of bodies of existing law to serve the needs of the forces that the lawyer represents, was the most valuable lesson to emerge from my years at Columbia. It led me to ask a fundamental question. If skilled lawyers for the corporations and for the government understand this fact and function this way in the interests of their establishment clients, why cannot lawyers for the people also fashion legal concepts into weapons of struggle to meet the needs of their clients? This question was to live with me for years, and the answer to it was forged in the reality of experience, not in the relative isolation of the classroom or the law library.


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