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March Book of the Month: Fight of the Century

Fight of the CenturyFight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
Reviewed by Diane Rodriguez, Assistant Director


Our national anthem proclaims that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but it hasn’t always been that way for many Americans, and the struggle continues.  Many of the freedoms current generations now enjoy—and may take for granted—were not automatically guaranteed to many Americans. Dedicated advocates have fought in court for our rights, defending the oppressed and underrepresented. It is difficult, groundbreaking work to question the laws and norms of the day and speak up for what is truly fair, constitutional, and just. For the past 100 years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has made it their mission to “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Some of our nation’s greatest legal minds have worked tirelessly with the ACLU to defend freedom and justice for all. Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases celebrates a century of the ACLU’s work, discussing the cases through storytelling by some of our most celebrated authors. Their artful narratives bring the issues closer to home, relating these complex legal cases to our daily lives and reminding us that each and every liberty fought for is a treasure to be defended and protected for future generations.

Each case is introduced with a brief legal synopsis, followed by a story or analysis illustrating the humanity behind the legal issue. It is important to remember there are actual faces behind the “name cases” that get tossed around in the news and in political circles. Someone experienced great wrong before the case was fought and the injustice was righted. One example is Street v. New York (1969), where a 51-year-old African American New York City bus driver with no previous criminal record set his American flag on fire in protest following the shooting of civil rights icon James Meredith. The story of Sydney Street, told by Rabih Alameddine in “The Right to Offend,” tells how he was convicted of violating a statute making it a crime to publicly “cast contempt upon [the U.S. flag] either by words or act.” The ACLU argued that the part of the law regarding “words” was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on First Amendment grounds. Just as fascinating are the actual facts of the flag burning itself. Street was a veteran of World War II and a Bronze Star Medal recipient. He held nothing but honor for the flag, which he treated with the utmost respect until he set it on fire. He took care to see that the flag was properly folded and held it as long as he could before setting it upon paper, so it never touched the ground. His act wasn’t a malicious act against the flag, but a bold protest against the slaying of a community icon—an act meant to bring attention to a great wrong by exercising his freedom of speech. The illustration of his story brought clarity and purpose to his actions beyond the statutory language and legalese.

The story of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) was more than “a series of Supreme Court cases going back over 30 years, pitting the Constitution’s promise of the protection against self-incrimination against a favorite tool of law enforcement: the confession.” Ernesto Miranda was not a model citizen—a small-time criminal whose name eventually became a common term. In this case, the ACLU saw an opportunity for the Supreme Court to secure the rights of criminal suspects. Everyone now knows that to Mirandize means to inform a criminal suspect of his or her rights to remain silent and to an attorney. As Hector Tobar recounts in “Ernesto’s Prayer,” beyond the incarceration and court case of Ernesto Miranda was a series of events that ultimately made Miranda Rights a household phrase, as well as dramatic language in Hollywood crime dramas. One of the drafters of the Miranda language, Nevada County District Attorney Harold Berliner, was also a printer and “produced hundreds of thousands of vinyl cards of the new language” and sold them nationwide. One of the cards fell into the hands of television producer Jack Webb as he was writing the first episode of the crime drama Dragnet. He worked the phrases into the script and created an unprecedented fusion of constitutional law and popular culture, thus educating Americans of their rights for generations to come.

Fight of the Century effectively highlights approximately 40 seminal cases and their fascinating stories that the ACLU fought on behalf of all Americans. While the protections the ACLU has won in their first hundred years have enriched our lives immeasurably, there is more work to be done. In these uncertain times, it is comforting to know that the ACLU is on watch, persisting in their vigilance and passion for justice, offering a beacon of hope and protection for all Americans now and into the future.


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February Book of the Month: Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers

Stories from Trailblazing Women LawyersStories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers: Lives in the Law
Written by Jill Norgren
Reviewed by Ruth Geos, Reference Librarian


Bracketed by the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment and the burst of voices and action from the #MeToo movement, Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers: Lives in the Law sketches in the period in between, when the blunt view of the profession was that law was exclusively a “guy’s game.” The 100 women interviewed though this oral history project of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession are lawyers, judges, Presidential cabinet members, law school deans, and civil rights pioneers who graduated from law school in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s—women who have become leaders in the profession, and models of achievement through persistence, daring, humor, and brilliance in a time that did not welcome their excellence or even their presence.

Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers draws from these detailed interviews to interweave their voices and stories, looking at the bigger story these women shared, starting with tales of childhood, their ambitions forward, barriers, job interviews, first legal position, and ultimately the personal and professional choices they made. Many of these women speak of their determined, mostly solitary way forward. They struggled with decisions about which sexist comment to challenge and which to let go, where to push and where to pull, when to marry, divorce, have children, what to wear and what to say, and how to best make use of their love of the law. Transcripts of the extensive interviews themselves (along with video interviews) are available online; the interviewers are also eminent women in the law.

It may be unbelievable to those of us in 2020 to hear that Harvard Law School did not admit women until 1950, and then deliberately failed to support them, with overt acts of humiliation, contempt, isolation, and complete disbelief that women could be real lawyers. It was not just Harvard, of course. Former New York Solicitor General Shirley Adelson Siegel was the only woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1941. Shirley Hufstedler, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and later Secretary of Education under Jimmy Carter, was one of two women at Stanford Law School in 1949. Even by the 1960s, only 10% of the class at UC Berkeley were women.

When it came to finding a job, the doors were closed, even for graduates of the most prestigious law schools. In 1949, Judge Hufstedler graduated fifth in her Stanford class. The Dean offered her a recommendation for a position as legal secretary. In 1952, Sandra Day O’Connor, also one of the best in her Stanford class, was also offered work as a legal secretary. In contrast, her classmate, William Rehnquist, was offered a position as a law clerk with a Justice on the Supreme Court.

Neither woman accepted the secretarial offer.

As Judge Hufstedler said: “What may startle people today is that nobody would hire a female lawyer. Nobody….”

Perhaps the most well-known trailblazer of this period, documented in film and books, is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

[W]hen I was a new justice on the court, for the 12 years that I sat together with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, invariably one lawyer or another would call me Justice O’Connor. They had been accustomed to a woman on the Court, and Justice O’Connor was THE woman, so if they heard a woman’s voice, well, that must be the lady justice, even though we don’t look alike, we don’t sound alike. But last year no one called Justice Sotomayor “Justice Ginsburg” or me “Justice Sotomayor” and I am certain that lawyers will perceive the differences among the three of us, and we will each have our individual identities.

Many other women speak here, including Pauline Schneider, the first female African-American president of the District of Columbia bar and the first female partner at Orrick; Dorothy Nelson, the first female dean of an accredited law school (the University of Southern California); Barbara Babcock, first woman appointed to the regular faculty at Stanford and a scholar of women in the law; Elizabeth Cabraser, who had early ambitions to be a professional drummer and became a renowned plaintiffs’ class action lawyer; Janet Reno, Attorney General in the Clinton administration; Judge Joan Dempsey Klein; Judge Dorothy Wright Nelson; and many other women who pushed the landmark line ever further ahead.

We are now up to the language of “electability,” but it bears looking back at the shadow of exclusion that was cast and is still with us, and the bold trailblazing of all these women, and more.


Related materials in the SF Law Library collection:


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January Book of the Month: Misfits, Merchants & Mayhem

Misfits, Merchants & MayhemMisfits, Merchants & Mayhem: Tales from San Francisco’s Historic Waterfront, 1849–1934
Written and Illustrated by Lee Bruno


Misfits, Merchants & Mayhem: Tales from San Francisco’s Historic Waterfront, 1849–1934 is an extraordinary book that explores San Francisco’s waterfront history by focusing on a variety of incredible individuals who marked the City’s formative years. Author Lee Bruno divides the period 1849–1934 into six chapters: the Gold Rush Era (1848–1855), the Comstock Load (1859–1870), the Gilded Age (1870–1900), the Great Earthquake & Fire (1906), the Jewel City (1907–1920), and the Jazz Age (1920–1934). Bruno focuses on several “movers and shakers” for each era, with vivid accompanying photographs and graphics for each person and time period.

Misfits, Merchants & Mayhem is more than a historic journey of San Francisco, as many of the people discussed in this book exemplify the effect that the era’s laws had on their lives and opportunities. One example is William Leidesdorff Jr., who was born on St. Croix to a Danish plantation manager and a mixed-race mother. He left the West Indies and made a small fortune as a shipmaster in New Orleans, and planned to marry a local plantation owner’s daughter. However, when her family discovered he was part black, they canceled the approaching wedding and the bride died shortly after, allegedly of a broken heart. Leidesdorff left New Orleans for Yerba Buena when New Orleans adopted the Negro Seaman Act of 1822, which barred black people from holding maritime jobs. In Yerba Buena, Leidesdorff became a prominent citizen and business leader primed for the U.S. takeover of California. He died of meningitis just when gold was discovered near his property on the American River, but the battle over his estate raged for over 50 years with foreign relatives being barred from inheriting, conflicting international laws and new probate laws confounding the process, and even the U.S. government claiming ownership. San Francisco still has an alley named for him where his commercial shipping warehouse was located (the City’s first), and a plaque near the Ferry Building.

Another notable example is Lew Hing, who at age 12 came to San Francisco from China to work with his brother in a metal working shop in 1871. By 1878, he had saved enough money to open a cannery business. By trial and error, he learned the cannery business (his was located at the corner of Sacramento and Stockton streets) and he overcame the rampant discrimination against the Chinese and false accusations of opium smuggling to become one of the biggest fruit canners on the West Coast. Hing was ineligible for citizenship because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, but he was very much a member of the community and was instrumental in assisting the city after the 1906 earthquake.

By delving into the lives of each period’s notable figures, Misfits, Merchants & Mayhem reveals how these fascinating individuals transformed the city and helped shape it into what it is today. To read this book is to travel back in time, with the research, prose, and photographs providing a completely immersive experience.


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December Book of the Month: How to Become a Federal Criminal

how-to-become-a-federal-criminalHow to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook for the Aspiring Offender
Written and Illustrated by Mike Chase
Reviewed by Courtney Nguyen, Reference Librarian


The road to hell may very well be paved with federal statutes and regulations, as demonstrated by our December Book of the Month, How to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook for the Aspiring Offender by Mike Chase. As the title promises, this book enumerates (with pictures!) the seemingly endless ways anyone can descend into a life of crime, even by accident. Chase writes with his tongue firmly in cheek, but even without the rude humor the actual statutes, regulations, and congressional hearings are outrageous and absurd enough to amuse and shock everyone. Here you will find lurid accounts of the depraved Yellowstone Off-Leash Cat Walker, and those wayward souls who dress like postal workers—when they aren’t even postal workers. Divided into eight sections based on type of offenses, this book barely scratches the surface of the innumerable crimes proliferated by Congress and various federal agencies.

Chase, an attorney who also runs the popular Twitter account @CrimeADay, clearly revels in the madness of it all, writing with a mix of juvenile glee and genuine befuddlement over how ridiculous these crimes can be. But he includes more than just illustrations on how to mail a mongoose; it’s clear that he has put extensive time and research into his work. This “handbook” also serves as a simple and easy to understand primer on the basics of the criminal justice system and how to read a federal statute, useful for aspiring offenders and law-abiding folk alike. He explores how there came to be so many federal crimes—more than it’s conceivably possible to count—tracing the labyrinthine path from the three listed crimes in the Constitution to the thousands upon thousands of criminal statutes and rules carrying criminal penalties we have today. There are also brief summaries of some of the stranger cases that went to court (some involving margarine).

This book not only gives you endless facts to share at cocktail parties, but also leaves you with some important takeaways. Such as, don’t bother trying to modify the weather with your weather laser unless you’ve filled out the right forms first. Or how the only thing standing between you and a cell might be how properly you label that box of dead bees you want to mail. And don’t even think about leaving the country with a pocketful of nickels.

Find How to Become a Federal Criminal (along with our other criminal law materials) at the library today!