The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst, Free Speech Renegade

CitationVol. 94 Pg. 272
Publication year2023
The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst, Free Speech Renegade
No. 94 CBJ 272
Connecticut Bar Journal
January, 2023

The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst, Free Speech Renegade

-Samantha Barbas, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2021. 420 pages.

University of Buffalo Law Professor Samantha Barbas has written a lucid and long-overdue biography of attorney Morris Ernst. Barbas shows how Ernst, who practiced law from 1915 until his death in 1976, captured the nation's admiration as a defender of First Amendment rights, yet, after World War II, strangely became a "red-baiter" and a devotee of J. Edgar Hoover.

Ernst had initial setbacks, but through persistence and good fortune he became quite successful. Ernst's father, cold and distant to him, was a financial speculator who began his career in Alabama and then moved to New York City. He lost his wealth in the economic downturn of 1907. Ernst's mother struggled with tuberculosis until her death in 1908.

Ernst was shy and withdrawn when he entered Williams College in 1906. He suffered from separation anxiety from his mother, who had been absent for several years as she traveled to warmer climates, the only known cure for her disease before the availability of antibiotics. He worried about his father's ability to pay his tuition. He was also self-conscious about his height at 5'6".

Williams College was a lifesaver for Ernst. A professor brought him out of his reserve by involving him in the college's debate club and in intense conversations about the ideas of Theodore Roosevelt and Progressivism. Ernst never forgot Williams College, returning to it for many years to mentor students.[1]

After Ernst graduated in 1909, one of his uncles set him up as an executive at a New York City shirt factory. In 1910, dissatisfied with his prospective career, he enrolled in the night division of New York Law School. He also joined the progressive City Club, a social group that focused on causes such as landlord-tenant reform, workers compensation legislation, and child labor laws. In 1912, Ernst graduated from law school and married Susan Leerberger, a writer and artist, and they had a child, Constance. Later in 1912, he left the shirt factory to work in Susan's family's chain of furniture stores.

Sadly, Susan faced challenges to her health and died in childbirth in 1920. In 1923 Ernst married Margaret Samuels, to whom he remained married until her death in 1964.

When Ernst graduated from law school in 1912, he had few prospects for employment as an attorney, but he assisted in drafting model legislation on unemployment benefits for the City Club. Then, in 1914, a former classmate at Williams, Laurie Greenbaum, asked Ernst to join him at a law firm he was establishing. Greenbaum was aware that Ernst had never appeared in court, but valued his business background.

Greenbaum was a graduate of Columbia Law School, as was Herb Wolff, who also joined the firm. Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst, opening its doors in 1915, was typical of new law firms, scraping for any available client. The firm's first location was in a rundown building, and the firm's office faced the elevated subway (the "el"). As the trains rolled by, one could hardly hear others speak.

Just as the firm began, Ernst by serendipity brought in a significant client. Ernst was a chain smoker, and one morning, smoking a cigarette on the top of the bus that he always took to work, he began a conversation with another smoker. This man told Ernst that he was in the process of organizing an association for jewelers to protect their rights. By the time Ernst reached his stop, the jeweler had retained him to assist in forming the new association. The jewelry association became a great success and Ernst was soon representing jewelers throughout New York State.

As World War I came to an...

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