People's electric: engaged legal education at Rutgers-Newark Law School in the 1960s and 1970s.

Author:Conk, George W.

Why Newark? Impact Litigation In Tune with the Times Affirmative Action Clinical Education and Affirmative Action Urban Legal Clinic Administrative Process Project Women's Rights Litigation Clinic Education Law Mt. Laurel--Open Housing Conspiracy on Trial--The Chicago Eight Constitutional Litigation Clinic PELS Grads in the Office of the Public Defender Looking Back WHY NEWARK?

The Ames Moot Court Room at Harvard Law School was packed on a Friday night in September 1969. An overflow crowd rallied for the Chicago Eight. Professor Arthur Kinoy, defendant John Froines, and Tom Hayden's defense attorney Leonard Weinglass reported on the courtroom confrontation that was front-page news every day. T-shirts and buttons saying "Join The Conspiracy" sold quickly. A motley crew of anti-war movement and "Black Power" leaders were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. ""Kinoy's stem-winder roused the young crowd--and me, fresh from two years in the Peace Corps in India and a graduate student of radical historian Howard Zinn. Like many other young activists--male and female--I changed course and applied to Rutgers-Newark, somewhere across the Rubicon in New Jersey. Kinoy had promised nights in the library until midnight, fighting to protect the "most fundamental principles, now under attack." We weren't disappointed. (1)

Three great shifts were underway, and Newark's legal community and Rutgers Law School were at the heart of it all. African Americans' demands for an end to poverty and discrimination, the anti-war movement, and the women's liberation movement converged. Civil rights and liberties were the long-standing focus of three leading civil rights movement lawyers--Professor Arthur Kinoy, William Kunstler, and Morton Stavis. They were experienced and successful advocates who frequently and sometimes with spectacular success had represented civil rights workers in the south and before the U.S. Supreme Court. (2) They founded the Law Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which had its first office on Branford Place, across the street from Hobbie's deli, a pastrami palace that fed much of Newark's bar. (3)

In the middle and late 1960s, disappointment with the slow pace of change--particularly economic change--led African Americans to join a series of civil disturbances--urban riots--mostly in major cities. Prompted in part by Urban Renewal projects (often criticized as "Negro removal" projects) that cleared large residential areas, the disturbances in Newark were particularly severe. The state National Guard patrolled the streets, and there were deaths and widespread property damage. (4) Rutgers Law School's new building had itself sparked controversy in and out of the school as protesters demanded jobs for African American and Latino construction workers. (5)

African American law students--who had been recruited--staged a dramatic protest that led to the establishment of a committee with the extravagant name "The Tripartite Commission." There, faculty members, African American students, and others met to discuss the law school's role in the current crisis. The results would shape Rutgers Law School: a Minority Student Program was created. (6)

"Poverty law," civil rights and liberties, women's rights, employment discrimination, and public education were the loci of legal education at Rutgers-Newark. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Rutgers-Newark--which we affectionately called People's Electric--presented a model of engaged legal education that was and is unique. To my knowledge, no other law school has been so thoroughly characterized by a broad progressive social agenda.

Rutgers-Newark changed the profile of who became lawyers: the school was far ahead of the curve in admitting women. In 1971 the entering class was 40% women, the second largest percentage in the country. (7) The influx of women was part of an epochal nationwide transition that saw women go from 11% of entering law students in 1969 to nearly 37% in 1975. (8) Begun in 1968, its affirmative action program brought many minority students to the school. The Minority Student Program provided mentoring, internship and other guidance to minority students and later expanded these services to non-minorities from poor families).

As chronicled by some of its key professors, the history of Rutgers-Newark is one of which the law school is proud. (9)


There were opportunities in Newark for all who were caught up in the excitement of the times--the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty, the rise of "women's liberation," and, of course, opposition to the war in Vietnam. In the mid-1960s, a faculty assembled at Rutgers-Newark that would make great innovations in legal education---clinical education by professors who conceived of and built the school as a law-reform institution. (10)

Frank Askin Alfred Blumrosen Ruth Bader Ginsburg Willard Heckel Arthur Kinoy John M. Payne Annamay Sheppard Alfred Slocum Nadine Taub Paul Tractenberg (11) The names of these key faculty--not to slight others---comprise an honor roll of progressive lawyers. Their achievements are carved in the law books, not the law reviews. Business did not interest them. They were career teachers and litigators. Slocum, for example, was an architect of the Minority Student program and a public servant as New Jersey's Public Advocate. (12) They founded or led clinics, which were the driving force of the People's Electric. Their creed was not to observe neutrally, but rather to make a difference--for legal, social, and economic equality of all and particularly for African Americans and Latinos; to advance the rights of women; and to expand and protect the fundamental rights of speech, privacy, and due process of law. They scrupulously held to certain basic precepts: a belief in the integrity of the judiciary, confidence that reason could reach every judge, and that the basic principles of our legal system were adequate to the tasks before us.

The result was that Newark--not Berkeley, Cambridge, New Haven, or Washington, D.C.--was the most exciting place to be a law student or law professor in the mid-1960s to late 1970s. The Law Center for Constitutional Rights began there. Rutgers-Newark Law School was the most innovative, exciting, and effective American law school in the 1960s and 1970s. The tension between the role of lawyers as public persons---officers of the court and the standard bearers of the rule of law--and lawyers as the facilitators of commerce that has troubled the profession had little resonance at Rutgers Law School. Education there was virtually free when I enrolled. Law students were not troubled by the prospect of burdensome debt. (13) Although it had once been a huge proprietary law school (2,335 students in the 1920s), it became part of the University of Newark and in 1946 was absorbed into Rutgers University. As employees of the State University of New Jersey, the professors at Rutgers-Newark were salaried and assured of a pension by their eligibility for the public employees retirement system, and so they had both security and academic freedom. (14)


Rutgers Law School reflected and joined the progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Primary among the driving forces were the civil rights movement and the effort to overcome the damage done by centuries of slavery and a century of the American apartheid system called Jim Crow. (15) The mass movement of African Americans in the South attracted the support and devotion of millions. The landmarks were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, (16) the Voting Rights Act of 1965, (17) the Fair Housing Acts of 1968, (18) and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. (19) The last of these was the enabling legislation for what Lyndon Johnson declared would be a War on Poverty. (20)

In 1977 the great New Jersey judge and Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, frustrated by the Supreme Court's pulling back from the expansionary mode of the Warren Court, lectured at Harvard Law School:

[S]tate courts cannot rest when they have afforded their citizens the full protections of the federal Constitution. State constitutions, too, are a font of individual liberties, their protections often extending beyond those required by the Supreme Court's interpretation of federal law. The legal revolution which has brought federal law to the fore must not be allowed to inhibit the independent protective force of state law--for without it, the full realization of our liberties cannot be guaranteed. (21) Rutgers Law professors had already recognized the need and opportunity to utilize state constitutions.

Two of the lasting programs of that era were Community Legal Services for the poor and the Headstart preschool programs (part of the Community Action Programs). Educational equality and legal protections for the poor were People's Electric's signature issues. Annamay Sheppard, a left-leaning local lawyer and 1958 graduate was one of the first to respond to the civil legal services programs (22) that the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 enabled. (23) Contrary to those who would use the contemptuous Tory phrase "nanny state" to dismiss these programs, the statute and the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) headed by Sargent Shriver emphasized self-help and economic development. (24)

It is worth remembering, too, that President Lyndon B. Johnson once said:

For so long as man has lived on this earth poverty has been his curse. On every continent in every age men have sought escape from poverty's oppression. Today for the first time in all history of the human race, a great nation is able to make and is willing to make a commitment to eradicate poverty among its people. (25) The Legal Services programs for the poor were part of the OEO-funded Rural and Urban Community Action Programs. One early program was the Newark Legal Services Project, which was...

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