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Civil rights lawyers from the 1960s have lessons for today's social activists

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focused on pot

That someone—who has devoted his life’s work to pursuing legalization of marijuana—is Bruce Margolin. He claims pot is not really part of his lifestyle and stresses that he’s not promoting marijuana use; he’s promoting changing the law. The Los Angeles lawyer, who graduated from Southwestern Law School in 1966, says he’s been driven by a very basic legal maxim that the punishment should fit the crime.

“Early in my career I got a case where there were 20 kids busted in a hippie house in California for pot possession,” Margolin says. “I represented all of them. There was one guy who was going to be convicted and was going to go to jail, and I was shocked about that. I couldn’t believe that’s how the system worked. It seemed too harsh for me.”

To Margolin, who grew up in a Marine family and was looking to rebel, marijuana was the ideal outlet. He began to research marijuana and could find nothing that convinced him it was harmful or dangerous. So he decided to push for its legalization while setting up his practice to help marijuana defendants.

“I realized that I needed to change the law,” says Margolin, who put ads in the newspaper to see who would join him in his cause. “One of the editors got ahold of me and started talking to me about my career. I mentioned that I had represented about 100 people on marijuana charges and only one went to jail. I soon became very well-known in the area of defending marijuana cases.”

Margolin has been executive director of the LA chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws since 1973. He also ran on a marijuana-legalization platform during the 2003 California recall election that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor. Margolin’s lawyer advertising contains multiple references to marijuana: His phone number is 1-800-420-LAWS (420 is a slang term for marijuana). And his website bears the phrase “No one belongs in jail for marijuana.”

“Maybe one day we’ll find out something really harmful about marijuana and maybe then I’ll feel bad about my work,” says Margolin. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

In 1970, Margolin ran for the California State Assembly and lost by 5 percentage points. After the campaign, he decided to put his legal career on hold to travel the world and, in his words, try to find the meaning of life. During his travels, he had befriended Richard Alpert, an academic who, along with his colleague Timothy Leary, had been fired from Harvard University after conducting controversial experiments with students involving LSD and other mind-altering substances.

“I went to India and took a meditation course,” Margolin says. “When I went back to my hotel, Richard Alpert was there. He taught me that, if you have a boon or power, you should use it.”

Margolin took that to mean that he should resume practicing law. That decision paid off for Alpert’s friend Leary. The professor had become even more notorious since his Harvard days, and at one point Leary was described as “the most dangerous man in America” by none other than President Richard M. Nixon. Leary had been on the lam for a couple of years after escaping from a minimum security prison while serving a 10-year sentence for marijuana possession. He was arrested in Kabul, Afghanistan, and extradited to the U.S., where he was locked up in Folsom State Prison next to Charles Manson for a time. Alpert then called Margolin and asked him to defend Leary.

“My job was to make people understand why he was in jail,” Margolin says. “It was really just a marijuana possession case.” Despite that, he came up with an intricate defense that included an LSD-induced flashback, as well as fears that Nixon and his administration would kill Leary. Leary was convicted, but he received a reduced sentence and was ultimately released from prison in 1976.


These movement lawyers have seen plenty of changes over the last half-century. But 2016 was a reminder that their work isn’t finished.

Margolin may have believed the hardest part of his lifelong struggle was over in November when California voters enacted Proposition 64 legalizing recreational marijuana. But on that same night, voters across the country elected Donald J. Trump to be president. Almost immediately after his victory, Trump nominated then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general. Sessions, a longtime opponent of marijuana who once said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” could make Margolin’s life interesting over the next few years.

“He makes me sick to my stomach,” says Margolin, who has defended Linda Lovelace, Christian Brando and members of Guns N’ Roses in marijuana-related cases. “I don’t know what he’s going to do.”

Harris, though retired, is hoping to mold the next generation of movement lawyers through his Center for Guerrilla Law. The main idea behind the center is similar to the law collective he set up all those years ago, he says. “It goes back to representing community groups and being house counsel for those institutions. The law has this notion of objectivity, but it’s not. The law serves the status quo in every country, but in the U.S. it also protects dissent, and that gives you breathing space as a lawyer.”

As dissent and organized protests become more commonplace in the Trump era, both Harris and Serra are heartened by what they see as a more active, committed, engaged and radical populace, even more than what they had seen in the ’60s and ’70s.

“We have a president who is seizing more and more executive power, and we are in the throes of a takeover and conversion to a totalitarian state,” says Serra. “As a result, liberals and moderates are raging, and it’s never been like that before.”

Serra cites Black Lives Matter as an example of how angry and sustained today’s dissidents are, saying: “Our fury is greater today than it was back then. Back then, we wanted reform; now, I think we want to overturn the government.”

While not all of these lawyers have subscribed to Serra’s life of poverty, they do agree that money is perhaps the single biggest impediment for today’s movement lawyers.

“The student loan issue is a problem now,” Harris says. “It forces people to not be politically active because they have to worry about debt.” He tells his cause-oriented students that they might have to take high-paying jobs at first to pay off their loans. “Watch your lifestyle,” he warns. “It’s very easy to get co-opted by capitalism.”

Bingham agrees, saying that working at a big law firm can be advantageous for young lawyers because of the level of training. He also suggests that cause-oriented big-firm lawyers act as if they’re living on a public interest salary. “It’s hard to do this on your own, so I would tell students to find others and live together and pool their resources so they won’t be tempted to use their money to buy nice cars or whatever,” says Bingham. “For me, I liked living collectively. With rents going up, it’s not a bad idea.”

Jenkins, meanwhile, encourages cause-oriented lawyers not to sweat the small stuff. He recommends that today’s lawyers look beyond the typical approach of trying to solve one problem at a time and, instead, take the long view.

“Instead of using a whack-a-mole approach and trying cases in isolation and as they come up, lawyers should look for long-term solutions,” Jenkins advises. “They should look for institutional solutions instead of individual solutions.”

But the main thing today’s lawyers have to remember, according to Serra, is that being a good lawyer trumps everything.

“You can’t be a loose cannon or a big mouth without backing it up with case law, memos and arguments in court that are credible and persuasive,” Serra says. “You’ve got to be good, man!” n



Print and initial online versions of "Resistance Redux,” August, should have stated that six inmates at San Quentin State Prison allegedly tried to escape. It also should have stated that Paul Harris was Stephen Bingham’s defense attorney at his preliminary hearing but was no longer representing him at his acquittal.

The Journal regrets the errors.


Resistance Redux,” August, should have stated that J. Tony Serra typically charges $25,000 for a death penalty case, knowing he could get nearly 10 times that working as a court-appointed attorney.

This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline "Resistance Redux: Civil rights lawyers from the 1960s have lessons for today's social activists."

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