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Norbert Schlei, 73; Principal Author of Civil Rights Act, Other Landmark Laws

April 21, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Norbert A. Schlei, key lawyer in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who found legal underpinning for the 1962 blockade of Cuba, wrote landmark civil rights legislation and once waged a strong bid to replace an entrenched Republican California secretary of state, has died. He was 73.

Schlei died Thursday at an acute care hospital in Los Angeles of infections caused by long-term immobility, his wife, Joan, said Saturday. She said Schlei had been virtually unconscious since suffering a heart attack March 25, 2002, while jogging in Santa Monica.

Considered a legal wunderkind, Schlei was the Democratic candidate for the 57th California Assembly District in 1962 when he was tapped by President John F. Kennedy as an assistant attorney general in charge of the office of legal counsel.

At the time, Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, the president's younger brother, quipped that Schlei -- only 33 -- had been named so there would finally be "someone younger" than he in the Justice Department.

But Schlei, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan after graduating from Yale Law School, proved a scholarly asset to the Kennedys and later to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Atty. Gen. Nicolas Katzenbach during crises and in forging the landmark Kennedy-Johnson civil rights reforms.

Schlei was the principal draftsman of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Immigration Reform Act of 1967.

"I felt I was lucky," Schlei told the New York Times in 1995, "because I was able to turn what ability I had to something important."

Schlei had barely moved into his quarters in August 1962 as head of the office of legal counsel just vacated by Katzenbach, when he was put to work. The University of Mississippi had refused to allow James Meredith, a black student, to enroll that fall, and Kennedy sent Schlei to Oxford, Miss., to get Meredith into the school.

Hardly a month later, as the Cuban Missile Crisis developed, Kennedy asked Schlei to study the legal basis for presidential action in connection with Cuba after U.S. surveillance confirmed that Russia was installing surface-to-air missile sites in the Communist island nation. Schlei responded with what became Kennedy's October justification for a naval quarantine on all offensive military equipment being shipped to Cuba.

"It is our view," he wrote, "that international law would permit use by the United States of relatively extreme measures, including various forms and degree of force, for the purpose of terminating or preventing the realization of such a threat to the peace and security of the Western Hemisphere."

The lawyer supported the view with references to self-defense rights, the collective and multilateral security obligations of the U.S. and the 1934 Cuban-U.S. Treaty, which established U.S. rights for its naval base at Guantanamo.

Although Schlei had to abandon his bid for assemblyman to go to Washington (incumbent Republican Charles Conrad was reelected), he tried for election in California four years later when he ran for secretary of state.

Schlei handily defeated six others in the 1966 Democratic primary, polling nearly twice as many votes as were received by his nearest competitor.

He also collected more than 2.7 million votes, a remarkable tally for a Democratic statewide office seeker in that penultimate general election against Republican Frank M. Jordan, incumbent for 23 years and at the time the only Republican statewide officeholder. Nevertheless, Schlei lost the general election Nov. 10, 1966, as Jordan was swept to victory in the Ronald Reagan Republican landslide.

Schlei, a personable Democratic campaigner, was only yards from Robert Kennedy at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was fatally shot on the night of the California primary in 1968. He largely bowed out of politics after serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that year in Chicago.

A highly successful trial and securities lawyer who represented such clients as Howard Hughes' Summa Corp. in lengthy litigation brought by ousted Hughes executive Robert Maheu, Schlei himself was tried in a Florida federal courtroom in 1995.

The charges and their aftermath were a cloud on Schlei's brilliant career.

Schlei was acquitted of eight counts, including wire and bank fraud and money laundering, but was convicted by a jury of conspiracy and securities fraud for purportedly helping five others sell $16 billion in fake Japanese government bonds from the mid-1980s to 1992.

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