• U.S.

The Law: Tigar for the Defense

4 minute read

In Seattle last February, 2,000 chanting youths descended on the city’s federal courthouse to protest what they regarded as the unfair conduct of U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial. Prepared for the worst, Seattle police had hidden riot squads in the public library across the street. When some of the protesters foolishly hurled rocks through the court windows and splattered paint on the walls, the police swooped out of their hiding place and arrested 77 demonstrators.

Local courts soon acquitted or dismissed the charges against nearly all the defendants. But the Justice Department used the incident as a reason to investigate a nascent radical group called the Seattle Liberation Front. Last spring FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover personally announced federal indictments against eight S.L.F. members. Though none of them had been arrested at the demonstration, all were charged with conspiring to damage federal property; five were also accused of crossing state lines with the intention of causing a riot. It was the Government’s first use, since the Chicago trial, of the 1968 federal antiriot law, which civil libertarians insist is unconstitutional.

Simple Heart. Many lay observers have expected the mop-haired “Seattle Eight” to stage a political trial as messy as the one in Chicago. The defendants have, in fact, caused a few sporadic disruptions—clenched-fist salutes for the judge and brief scuffles outside the courtroom. But when the new trial opened in Tacoma last week, there were clear differences. For one, U.S. District Judge George Boldt, 66, seems more detached and judicious than Julius Hoffman. His authority has also been strengthened by last spring’s Supreme Court decision (Illinois v. Allen), which sanctioned contempt citations, gagging or expulsion of obstreperous defendants. But equally significant, the American Civil Liberties Union has chosen as attorney for two of the defendants a brilliant young U.C.L.A. law professor — Michael Tigar, 29 — who is abler and cooler than William Kunstler of Chicago fame.

Determined to perform as a lawyer, not a polemicist, Tigar calmly points out that nearly all the “overt acts” cited by the Government against the defendants consist of meetings and speeches. Dressed in a sober suit, white shirt and tie, Tigar began his opening statement to the jury by promising to be “mercifully brief.” He was. “Conspiracy deals in essence with the contents of men’s minds,” he said in part. “That is the simple heart of this case.”

Student Activist. Tigar grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a machinists’ union official whose schooling ended in the eighth grade. One of Berkeley’s first student activists in the early 1960s, he protested ROTC, favored the Cuban Revolution and demonstrated against the House Un-American Activities Committee. For his efforts, Tigar was investigated by the California legislature’s HUAC equivalent. California conservatives and their congressional allies were so disturbed by his activities that they pressured Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. to withdraw his offer of a clerkship for Tigar, who had graduated at the top of his law-school class. Brennan reluctantly went along.

In a sense, Tigar benefited from the loss of the clerkship; Edward Bennett Williams quickly hired him as a trial lawyer in Washington, D.C. In three years, he helped defend clients as diverse as Bobby Baker and Abbie Hoffman, Pentagon peace marchers and two of Malcolm X’s assassins. Before leaving Washington, Tigar helped found the Selective Service Law Reporter, the first and best compilation of draft laws for use in Selective Service cases.

For the past year and a half, he has been one of U.C.L.A. Law School’s most popular teachers and a rising scholar as well. In the June issue of the U.C.L.A. Law Review, he published a probing article on the Supreme Court’s handling of “political questions.” In its annual review of Supreme Court decisions, the Harvard Law Review recently published Tigar’s commentary as a lead article. His well-documented theme: the nation’s criminal courts are so congested that U.S. justice now “works” primarily by persuading defendants to waive their rights in order to resolve cases faster.

In his Harvard article, Tigar argues that courts cannot expect respect when the Government appears to use the judicial system as “a weapon to repress dissent.” Even so, Tigar was meticulously polite in the Seattle courtroom last week, the model of a good trial lawyer, who thus far seems unwilling to let the Seattle trial become a Chicago-like circus.

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