Aug 17, 2009
Doris "Dobby" Brin Walker, the first woman president of
the National Lawyers Guild, died on August 13 at the age of 90. Doris was a brilliant lawyer and a tenacious defender of
human rights. The only woman in her University of California
Berkeley law school class, Doris defied the odds
throughout her life, achieving significant victories for labor, and political
Doris' legal and political
activism spanned several decades and some of the most turbulent but significant
periods in US history. She organized workers,
fought against Jim Crow and McCarthyism, was active in the civil rights and
anti-Vietnam War movements, and actively opposed the current wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
At UCLA, Doris became a marxist. After she was sworn in as a member
of the California State Bar, Doris joined the
Communist Party USA, remaining a member until her death. Upon graduation from
law school, Doris began practicing labor law; but a few years later, she went to
work in California canneries as a labor organizer.
When Cutter Labs fired Doris in 1956, the case
was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the Court refused to
hear the case, Justice Douglas, joined in dissent by Chief Justice Warren and
Justice Black, wrote, "The blunt
truth is that Doris Walker is not discharged for misconduct but either because
of her legitimate labor union activities or because of her political ideology or
belief. Belief cannot be penalized consistently with the First Amendment . . .
The Court today allows belief, not conduct, to be regulated. We sanction a
flagrant violation of the First Amendment when we allow California, acting
through her highest court, to sustain Mrs. Walker's discharge because of her
Doris returned to the practice of law and
represented people charged under the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (the Smith
Act) in California. The Act required all resident
aliens to register with the government, enacted procedures to facilitate
deportation, and made it a crime for any person to knowingly or willfully
advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence. The work of Doris
and other NLG lawyers led to Yates v.
United States, in which the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of
Smith Act defendants in 1957. After Yates, the government never filed
another prosecution under the Smith Act.
During the McCarthy era, Doris was called to testify before the House Un-American
Activities Committee and she also represented several HUAC witnesses. From 1956
to 1961, Doris successfully defended William
and Sylvia Powell, who faced the death penalty, against Korean War sedition
charges. The US government
charged that articles Powell had written reporting and criticizing
US biological weapons use in
Korea were false and written with
intent to hinder the war effort. When a mistrial ended the sedition case, the
government charged the Powells with treason. Attorney General Robert Kennedy
dismissed the case in 1961.
A partner with the NLG firm of Treuhaft &
Walker in Oakland, California from 1961 to 1977, Doris' practice focused on civil rights, free speech and
draft cases during the Vietnam War. She also defended death penalty cases.
Perhaps best known for her defense of Angela Davis, Doris was part of a legal team that secured Angela's
acquittal on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. In that case, which
Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree in 2005 called "clearly the trial of the
20th century, and one that exemplified the vast and diverse talents
of the true Dream Team of the legal profession," the defense pioneered the use
of jury consultants.
Doris was elected president of the NLG in 1970 after a
bruising battle during which one opponent labeled her "a man in a woman's
skirt." She paved the way for the election of five women NLG presidents in the
Serving as Vice President of the International
Association of Democratic Lawyers from 1970 to 1978, Doris supported the
struggles of victims of U.S. imperialism throughout the world
and was instrumental in the development of international human rights law. In
1996, Doris served as one of eight
international observers at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
hearings led by Desmond Tutu.
In 2004, Doris submitted a resolution on behalf of
the NLG Bay Area Chapter to the Conference of Delegates of the California Bar
Association asking for an investigation of representations the Bush
administration used to justify the war in Iraq, for
Noted writer Jessica
Mitford and Doris were close friends for years; Jessica was married to
Robert Truehaft, Doris' law partner. When Doris invited Jessica to join
the Communist Party, the latter replied, "We thought you'd never ask!"
There is speculation that author J.K. Rowling, who cited Jessica as her
main literary influence, named her Harry Potter house elf "Dobby" after
seeing Dobby Walker's name in Jessica's books. On a recent visit to her
home, Doris showed me the Dobby references in works by Jessica on her
Doris frequently called me with her concerns and
opinions about the issues of the day and in the NLG. She remained intensely
engaged in politics until the day she died.
Doris "Dobby" Walker inspired generations of progressive
lawyers, law students and legal workers to struggle unrelentingly for justice
and equality. She was a friend, comrade and role model to scores of people in
and out of the NLG. We will never see the likes of her
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