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Norman Leonard, 92; Labor Lawyer Was at Forefront of Political Turmoil in U.S.

March 17, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Norman Leonard, a chief legal architect for the longshoremen's union whose eloquent legal brief was critical in persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a perjury conviction against union founder Harry Bridges in the 1950s, has died. He was 92.

Leonard, a leading labor and civil rights lawyer, died of heart failure March 7 at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in San Francisco, said his son, Eric.

Leonard twice successfully defended Bridges before the Supreme Court in cases 15 years apart.

In the first, he was fresh out of law school in 1938 and working at a San Francisco firm that specialized in waterfront labor issues when he was assigned to defend Bridges in a free-speech case.

During a suit involving the young International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Bridges was fined for contempt after he sent telegrams that criticized the judge and threatened a strike if the decision against the union was not reversed. The Supreme Court came down on the side of Bridges -- and freedom of speech.

By the second and more famous Supreme Court case in 1953, Bridges and Leonard -- who had built a reputation as a brilliant legal strategist -- were good friends.

Bridges, an immigrant seaman from Australia, had been convicted in 1950 of perjury for testifying at a 1945 naturalization hearing that he had never belonged to the Communist Party.

The Supreme Court held that he was wrongly indicted because the statute of limitations had run out on the charge against him.

Leonard, who had a reputation as a formidable researcher and writer, crafted the successful brief.

"He is known as a great legal scholar," said Bill Carder, who was Leonard's last law firm partner. "In the famous cases he was involved in, people were convicted in trial courts and the convictions were often reversed on appeal as a result of briefs Norm wrote."

Another high-profile case involved Communist Party leaders in Los Angeles who were prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940, the law that made it a crime to "knowingly or willfully" advocate or abet the violent overthrow of the government or belong to any group that encouraged such an action.

Leonard moved his family to Echo Park for eight months so he could work on the trial in the early 1950s, an era when "you paid a price for being a radical lawyer," Carder said.

"There was no radical chic about it then, but I don't think he regretted for one moment having been part of it," he said.

The legal team lost the case but successfully appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which "effectively broke the back of the Smith Act," Leonard later recalled.

Throughout Leonard's career, much of it spent as counsel to the longshoremen's union and other unions, he took on many civil rights cases, often without charging a fee.

A partial client list reads like a short reference to the political turbulence in post-World War II America: accused Communists subpoenaed to appear before Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s, conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, activists who picketed the Sheraton Palace hotel in San Francisco to protest a whites-only hiring policy, students who protested at UC Berkeley in the 1960s and '70s.

"He had a lot of strong political feelings, and he was not shy about representing people whose views or activities were consistent with his own political views," said Richard L. Patsey, a retired Contra Costa County Superior Court judge who was also a former law-firm partner of Leonard's.

"And he had one of the most astute legal minds I have ever witnessed," Patsey said.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Leonard was born Feb. 27, 1914, in the Bronx, N.Y., to Sam and the former Anna Ghinger, who met while working in New York's garment district. While his father was a tailor's helper, his mother ran a candy store for a few years.

Even at 15, union strife affected Leonard's life.

A lengthy garment industry strike caused the family to move in 1929 to the West Adams district in Los Angeles, where his father again worked in the needle trade.

After graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1930, Leonard majored in political science at UCLA and veered toward left-wing politics, influenced by professors and the Depression.

An activist group called the Social Problems Club that he belonged to was forced to meet off-campus at the Westwood YMCA.

He returned to New York to study international relations on scholarship at Columbia University, earning a master's in 1935 and a law degree three years later. While there, he was editor of the Columbia Law Review.

Five women were in his law school class, and he married one of them: Marjorie Friedman, a Barnard College graduate who shared his political perspective and was the daughter of a New York lawyer.

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