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writing for godot


Written by Joan Wile   
Sunday, 08 August 2010 07:09
Forget about all those lawyer jokes satirizing the legal profession's propensity to cheat and finagle. There is an attorney in New York City who has TOTAL integrity. He will not cut corners, lie, or fudge facts in order to achieve positive results for his clients. I know, because in 2005-6 he represented me and my group, the Granny Peace Brigade, in a widely-publicized case in which we were arrested and jailed when 18 of us not-so-young-anymore grandmothers tried to enlist in the military at the Times Square recruiting center in an effort to bring attention to our plea to bring the troops home from Iraq.
And, too, you can forget about getting him to take on a case that isn't fully compliant with his views about the rights of people under the Constitution. If you're a big corporation, for instance, trying to take over private property, illegally using the eminent domain principle as your rationale, don't go to him.. He won't represent you no matter how big the fee.
Meet Norman Siegel, former Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union from 1985 to 2000, who has since been in private practice in New York City. Born and raised in Brooklyn, a graduate of Brooklyn College with a law degree from New York University, Norman, at 66, is handsome, informal and fun to be with...and completely dedicated to his civil liberties beliefs. He is a hero to all who treasure those rights.
He is so painstakingly honest that, for instance, he cautioned us not to identify ourselves in our organizational name as grannies, because in actuality one or two of us were not officially grandmothers. He worries about stuff like that -- stuff that could possibly have the slightest taint of deception or false misrepresentation.

Norman Siegel has taken on difficult cases that perhaps other attorneys wouldn't touch, such as the struggle for improved community-police relations and greater accountability on the part of the New York City Police Department. He is counsel to Tuck-It-Away in their fight against the use of eminent domain in Columbia University's expansion plan. He has also advocated and represented 9/11 Families, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and Firefighters Families, the Transit Workers Union and the United Federation of Teachers in first amendment lawsuits, African American and Latino Police Officers in a racial discrimination lawsuit against New York City. This is just a small sampling of his many Up-Against-the-Establishment endeavors. Of very recent note, Norman represented New Yorkers against the Extension of Term Limits, a direct challenge to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's (ultimately successful) attempt to extend his term beyond the legal limit of two.
Here's the real surprise. If Norman believes in the cause, and the client can't afford a fee, he will handle it gratis. I know this to be a fact, because he worked tirelessly, with his co-counsel Earl Ward, for a period of many months on our behalf without charging a fee. The work was very time-consuming and complex because he represented each of us individually rather than as one group, so you can imagine the paper work involved. Why was he so generous with his time and expertise? Simply because he believed that what we did was constitutionally protected and also because he passionately supported our anti-war cause.
The lengths to which Norman has gone to protect what he considers morally just and right are astounding. While researching this article, I learned something about Norman that I had never known. Norman is not one to boast about his triumphs, you see. Hold on to your hats!
In 1973, as a young attorney with the ACLU, Norman assisted other ACLU lawyers in a historic case challenging the constitutionality of the bombing of Cambodia. Norman and the others went to see Justice Thurgood Marshall in Washington D.C. to request that he enter an order restoring a lower court injunction prohibiting the bombing of Cambodia. The reasoning, of course, was that since only Congress can legitimately declare war and it hadn't done so vis a vis Cambodia, the bombing was illegal. Disappointingly, Marshall refused.
The remaining option was to approach Justice William Douglas, who, at the time, was vacationing in his cabin on a mountain in Goose Prairie, Washington. Norman immediately flew to Seattle where he was greeted by a law student, Robert Free, who drove Norman up the mountain in his Volkswagon to the Justice's property. They arrived at around 2:00 o'clock in the morning, thereby causing Norman a dilemma. Worrying as to what he could say to parents whose son might die in the next hour, he determined to meet with Douglas immediately. Yet, he didn't want to risk angering Douglas by knocking on his door and thus fail in his mission. So, it was finally decided that he and Free drive the car around and around Douglas's area, hoping the noise would wake him up. That failing, they turned on the bright lights. Still no response. Then, they honked the horn. Nothing. Having no recourse, then, but to go to a motel, Norman waited it out for a few hours and went back to the cabin at sun-up. He repeated the process of the night before -- honking horn, etc. -- to no avail. Finally, he screwed up his courage and knocked on the door just after 7 a.m. The legendary Justice came out on the porch dressed in a work shirt, dungarees and boots. Norman, clad in a white suit and tie, pleaded his case. The Justice requested an hour to think it over, so Norman repaired to a diner. When he returned, Mr. Douglas directed Norman to set up a hearing right away in Yakima, the end result being that Douglas issued an order restoring the injunction stopping the bombing of Cambodia. Mission accomplished!
Unfortunately, later that same day. the rest of the Supreme Court justices reversed Douglas's order. It was then that Norman realized a hard fact: "I saw that rights are respected only to a point -- you can't put all your eggs in the court system only. In jugular vein cases, what is legally correct is sometimes superceded by power. From then on, I operated under the M.O. that you had to try cases in the court of public opinion as well as in the courts."
So, that's Norman Siegel, champion of civil rights and liberties, honest to the core, the soul of integrity, willing to go to incredible lengths to secure justice.
And, if you'd like to see Norman in action, come to his annual public reading of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence in Strawberry Fields, Central Park, on every July 4, at noon. He not only reads portions of the great documents, but he discusses the failure today to always adhere to them.

Join Norman in the park and learn about your rights from the master! your social media marketing partner

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