Kunstler: A Lawyer Disturbing The Universe


So who was William M. Kunstler, after all? Watching the movie two of his daughters, Sarah and Emily Kunstler, released about the man, Disturbing the Universe, raises more questions than it provides answers. In the end, however, I think the answer is simple: Kunstler was a lawyer, a criminal defense lawyer. Period.

Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz charges him with hypocrisy. Looking into a camera and at one of the legendary lawyer’s daughters, Dershowitz concludes that Kunstler was a from time-to-time a hypocrite, acting inconsistently with his own political values. Even Michael Ratner, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, wondered why Kunstler took some of the cases, typically criminal cases on behalf of outcasts, that he did. Couldn’t Kunstler have taken other cases, cases in which the parties shared "our values?"

The question of Kunstler’s hypocrisy, or inconsistency, understandably arises in the context of his career. He began his professional life as a plain vanilla lawyer with a general practice in Westchester County. He wrote wills, handled divorces, litigated automobile accident cases, even authored a book on handling accident claims. He married. He had a house in the suburbs, and a wife and children, too. His was on a trajectory to lead the quiet, unremarkable life that we used to associate with the American dream. He was going nowhere and everywhere all at once. From such tiny seeds might have sprouted a judge, a Senator, a leading member of the bar. But Kunstler decided instead to piss into the wind, and he became a trial lawyer.

When he woke up, drenched, he fought his way through the civil rights struggle in the South, the Chicago Seven trial, the Attica prison murders, and then, finally, at the end of his career, he screamed alongside the despised, sometimes violent, and often hated people forced to the margins of life. He died representing the hated and the scorned, men accused of murder and shocking violence, and he became himself hated and scorned. William Kunstler died a criminal defense lawyer, and I take great comfort in the strength of this man.

His legacy confuses his daughters, Emily and Sarah. They were sired when he was well into his fifties, and as they became self-conscious, they at once idolized and despaired over the contrasting roles Kunstler played in our lives. (Although it is unstated, the film makes clear that his was a heart overflowing with love for his children. They followed him, apparently, with a video camera, interviewing him, viewing him in his study; Kunstler clearly loved these girls. Can they recall the arms he cast not just around them, but around his clients when a verdict either brought new life or despair? How can the same arms perform both roles, loving father and Devil’s advocate?)

Kunstler’s glory days as a civil rights lawyer were behind him when the girls came of age. They’ve reviewed film clips, tracked down witnesses to their father’s exploits, including a now senior woman who served as a juror in the Chicago Seven trial and was radicalized to distrust her government. The girls seem to wonder became of their father the movement lawyer?

I submit that Kunstler matured as a lawyer. It is not that he abandoned prior principles when he decided to represent those hated and despised by others. He more fully performed his role as master storyteller and advocate when he walked in the valley of the shadow of death.

I winced when I saw Dershowitz and Ratner suggest that Kunstler had somehow betrayed broader principles by standing beside the despised in open court. Movement lawyers have always made me a little uneasy. I worry that they view clients as caricatures, movable pieces that serve the interests and narrative needs of strangers who mean well. But a client is never a means to a broader end. A client is, to use Kantian terms, an end in himself or herself. Just how Dershowitz can level a charge of hypocrisy at Kunstler because the latter stood beside clients despised by folks sharing the political and social values of a particular group baffles me. A criminal defense lawyer always stands alone, in the shadow of his client, howling into the face of uncomprehending strangers that nothing human is foreign to any of us. The hated, the despised, even the damned are those most in need of a lawyer. They need protection from those quick to level charges of hypocrisy most of all.

My wife and I watched Disturbing the Universe last night. When it ended, we were both unsatisfied. It seemed so much was left unsaid, unresolved, about the life of this great American lawyer. When I got into the office this morning, I thumbed through an old copy of Kunstler’s biography, published in 1994, entitled My Life as a Radical Lawyer. (Confession: I own two copies. One of them is autographed and inscribed to one of Kunstler’s friends.) I did not find the answer I was looking for in these pages.

The truth about Kunstler is probably simple. He was a great story teller. He loved a stage. As a young man, he was inspired by Michaelangelo’s David, at the Accademia in Florence. David stands with a rock poised in one hand, a sling thrown over his shoulder. It is decision time. Will he risk all to tangle with Goliath? No one requires this act of moral heroism; he could fade into the crowd and live an unblemished sort of life. But David chose otherwise. He stepped forward. He cast a stone, and he felled a giant, becoming himself a giant of sorts..

We remember David’s courage, his willingness, even his desire, to take the stage. So, too, do we recall William Kunstler. He was never content to live in the shadows. He was drawn increasingly to that sharp edge separating the living from the dead, good from evil. He chose the path less taken not because he was a saint. He chose it because there was life in the terror of the moment. I suggest we recall Willaim Kunstler because he chose forever and always the untidy and primeval currents that carry even the most civilized among us along to destinations unknown. He was complex because he eschewed convention, and, in the end, I suggest he died much like Socrates did, knowing that he did not know, but that the quest was all.

Was Kunstler a hypocrite? Yeah, most likely. Aren’t well all? Only the dead rest easy in the confines of well-defined boxes.

Also listed under: Great Lawyers

Comments: (3)

  • Kunstler's Legacy and DerschBag
    It's called the "Dersch Factor,"... something like, if you can't dazzle them with your intellect, you snow them with your BS. (Clarence Thomas would be at the other end of the specttrum.)Kunstler agreed to represent me in 69. I went with army-appointed defense counsel in order to avoid unnecesary publicity. It worked for me, but that does not mean that W.K. was not a great CDL. Nice essay.
    Posted on February 20, 2011 at 9:13 am by william doriss
  • Kunstler - Disturbing the Universe
    I appreciated your insights on the DVD. I got Disturbing the Universe last November, but have had time to watch it yet!
    Posted on February 23, 2011 at 9:50 pm by Sally Roberts
  • The other "Disturbing the Universe"
    "Disturbing the Universe" is also the title of a 1979 book by physicist and polymath Freeman Dyson. It is an extraordinary book and well worth reading.
    Posted on February 27, 2011 at 1:34 am by Martin Budden

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