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Catherine Roraback, 87; civil rights lawyer

October 23, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Catherine Roraback, a civil rights lawyer whose work paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark abortion rights decision, has died. She was 87.

Roraback, who defended radicals throughout her career, died Wednesday at a senior care facility in Salisbury, Conn., according to her family. The cause of death was not disclosed.

"She was quite a giant," Anne C. Dranginis, a friend and former appellate court judge, told the Hartford Courant last week. "She wasn't afraid to take a case that was controversial. She considered that her life's work."

Roraback made a name for herself in a string of cases challenging Connecticut's 1879 law banning the use of and prescriptions for contraceptives.

In the early 1960s, she represented a Planned Parenthood director and the clinic's doctor who had purposely challenged the law by opening a birth control clinic in New Haven, Conn.

She lost the case, but when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Griswold v. Connecticut on appeal, Roraback was the co-counsel. In 1965, the court ruled to establish reproductive health rights for women and extend privacy rights to reproductive freedom of choice.

The Griswold case became the cornerstone of the high court's 1973 landmark abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade.

Roraback was "long known as the least flamboyant of radical lawyers," the Connecticut Law Tribune said in 2006.

Early in her career, she made a point of defending people with unpopular ideas, including civil rights workers and Black Panther party members.

In 1971, she was the lead lawyer in the trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and Panther member Ericka Huggins in the killing of another party member; the case ended in a mistrial.

She also represented members of the Communist Party prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940, which 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. Such cases didn't help build her practice, "but representing someone who is being persecuted for having radical ideas is very exciting," Roraback said in the Law Tribune story.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Roraback was the daughter of social activists. Her father was a Congregational minister who came from a family of prominent Connecticut lawyers. She had a grandfather who sat on the state's Supreme Court.

She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and was the only woman in her 1948 graduating class at Yale Law School. She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut the following year.

For years, she was a partner in a New Haven law firm but also maintained an office near her longtime home in Canaan, Conn.

Roraback's cousin, Connecticut state Sen. Andrew Roraback, said she regaled family and friends with "wonderful stories about the gender issues of the time, including having to enter the New Haven Graduate Club by the back door because she was a woman. But there was a very real sense that the trials she had as an early woman professional hardened her into the successful person she became."

She is survived by a sister, Elizabeth Schmidt.

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