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Socrates at the Seder

In the eyes of the world, Stanley Fleishman was either the pre-eminent First Amendment lawyer of the past half-century (if you were a civil-liberties buff) or that guy who defended dirty pictures and books (if you were a habitue of the right-wing talk-show circuit he would occasionally subject himself to in the ’50s and ‘60s). Alternatively, he was the leading legal advocate for the disability-rights movement over the past 25 years.

My introduction to Stanley was a little different. The way I got to know him, he was the most articulate guy around at either Thanksgiving or Passover.

Stanley and I weren’t directly related, but we were related to the same relatives, and in my extended family (which no one has ever left alive) that was a guarantee that we would meet several times a year -- at my aunt‘s, at my cousin’s, at Stanley‘s Malibu beach house. When I was a kid, Stanley was fascinating simply because he walked on crutches (as an infant, he’d contracted polio) but nonetheless managed to walk everywhere, and because he didn‘t simply speak, he piped up. When I was older, I learned who he was by reputation. When I was still older, I learned it was a good idea to sit across from him during Passover, because he was a brilliant conversationalist and controversialist (and he knew it), who asked better questions than the Official Four -- a good tablemate during a lull in the action. Casually, courteously, seemingly innocuously, he’d pop you a question, then decorously scrutinize your assumption just to see if there was anything behind it. A Seder-long sidebar with Stanley was as close to an authentic Socratic schmooze as I was ever going to get.

Over the years, as the Seders and the soirees whizzed by, Stanley became my beau ideal of an attorney -- notwithstanding that I‘d never seen him officially in action. I’ve seen plenty of other attorneys in action, God knows: As the campaign manager for Rose Bird and her two equally doomed associates in 1986, not to mention as the political editor of this paper for a decade now, my work life has sometimes seemed a cavalcade of lawyers. But I knew how Stanley argued when he wasn‘t in court -- indignant, self-possessed, succinct, learned, razor-sharp, and certain that Madison and Jefferson were on his side -- so it was no stretch of the imagination to envision him lecturing the nine robes of the Supreme Court, which he did 10 times during his long career.

As events would have it, I didn’t have to envision him. In his book Thy Neighbor‘s Wife -- his chronicle of America’s shifting sexual mores -- author Gay Talese provided a description of Stanley arguing before the Burger Court, invoking the First Amendment in an attempt to overturn the conviction of a client facing jail on pornography charges. “‘Mr. Fleishman,’ said Burger, ‘I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.’” Talese continues:

“Fleishman pushed himself up from behind the counselors‘ table, and, in a rolling motion, pivoted his five-foot body between two crutches and moved by the strength of his shoulders toward the podium. At first his body seemed almost gnomish, a small figure in a dark tailored suit, advancing slowly, noisily, heavily in front of the bench. But when he stopped at the podium and turned toward the justices, after pounding his rubber-tipped crutches into a firm position on the floor, he seemed suddenly to transcend any sense of frailty. His shoulders were massive. His head was held high and was topped by thick curly black hair. With a sharp jaw, a prominent nose, and deep penetrating eyes, his was a sculptor’s face, chiseled and strong, and as he stood alone in the front of the room his presence suggested an unfinished masterwork, a heroic head and torso supported by scaffolding. When he began to speak, his voice was resonant and reverberated through the large chamber, reaching the farthest row. Unlike many attorneys who appear before the High Tribunal, Fleishman seemed unintimidated, exuding a manner that would have bordered on cockiness were it not for his attitude of respect and formality. He was defense counselor who was not on the defensive.”

Stanley had overcome so much I can‘t imagine what would put him on the defensive. After being told as a kid that he was too crippled to ever amount to anything, he managed to put himself through college in Georgia (hitchhiking back to his New York home one spring), practice law on Wall Street at a time when the firms there weren’t exactly crazy about hiring Jews, represent Henry Miller and Deep Throat at a time when Puritanism and Comstockery abounded, and argue for the rights of the disabled in courtrooms that routinely excluded them from juries.

At recent Seders, his long curly hair turned gray, Stanley had the air of an Old Testament patriarch, beaming at children and grandchildren, both his own and others -- until the conversation turned to the latest folly of the Rehnquist Court, at which point he‘d say just enough to eviscerate the mamzers, and return to his beaming. Then, in the last couple of years, the crutches -- at which he’d seemed so adept -- were replaced by a wheelchair. He continued his practice -- winning a case that he‘d argued before the Ninth Circuit just three months ago -- right up to the time he entered Cedars last month. Medication could possibly have kept him alive, in some fashion or another, and Barry Fisher and David Grosz, two of his law partners, came over to try to convince him -- since he was a terrific lawyer with landmark cases still before him, not to mention a terrific guy -- to give the drugs a try. Stanley replied that his body just wasn’t up to it, and neither was their argument. He went off the drugs and died within a day. He leaves his wife, Doris; three daughters, Bette, Sue and Judy, and their families; a strengthened First Amendment; a flourishing disability-rights movement; and a gaping hole at the Seder table.