by Sharon Sanders
The civil rights guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment are sacred to veteran trial attorney Steven J. Hyman ’62. He recently represented Eunice Huthart, Angelina Jolie’s former stunt double, in a battle to have her suit against Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp tried in the United States instead of the United Kingdom. The phone-hacking scandal resulted in the shuttering of The News of the World. The British jury acquitted one News Corp executive, but found another guilty of illegally intercepting voice-mail messages. Huthart’s case was dismissed.
The chair of litigation for the Manhattan law firm McLaughlin & Stern, Hyman is a frequent lecturer and panelist on civil liberties issues. He recently gave a lecture and met with students during a campus visit sponsored by the Office of Intercultural Development and Pre-Law Advising Program. He focused on the conflict today between the quest for security in the age of terrorism and the exercise of fundamental rights under the Constitution.
Thriving on variety, he has taken on cases as diverse as murder, robbery, and employee discrimination. Law is an exciting and intellectual career, he says. “You get to ask: ‘What’s the issue? How do I deal with it?’ It is a particular way of thinking.” As a law student at Columbia University, he was inspired by a lecture in spring 1963 given by William Higgs, the only white attorney defending Freedom Riders in Mississippi. As a young lawyer, he had the opportunity to work for civil rights attorney William Kuntsler, who later defended the Chicago Seven.
In that era, he says, lawyers were sometimes able to affect change such as advancing integration or gaining an injunction to stop the war in Cambodia for a couple of hours. “Courts were receptive, and lawyers were aggressive. You went to court thinking you could accomplish something.”
Hyman says the course of “the expansiveness of the Warren court” in rulings on Constitutional rights of free speech, due process, racial equality, and adherence to the law shifted after President Richard Nixon appointed Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1969.
“It was a vivid change in direction. Burger said that lawyers were merely the mechanics of applying the law, not the agents of change,” he says. “Over time, lawyers were no longer, on the whole, trying for social change.” Although he notes the more recent issue of same-sex marriage has been an area in which lawyers may have the ability to effect change. “Certainly the courts have played a major role in effecting the legal status of gay marriage, and lawyers who are involved in it have found a court system suddenly quite receptive to the same ideals that we advocated in the ’60s and ’70s. I was involved in one of the first cases in New York trying to overturn the law that prevented gays from getting married but, apparently I was too early since we lost!”
The highlight of his career came when he argued before the Burger Supreme Court on Jan. 18, 1984, representing Benjamin Quarles in New York v. Quarles. The court’s decision in the case established that a public safety exception exists to the requirement that Miranda warnings be given before a suspect’s answers can be admitted into evidence.
“Nothing is more memorable than being in the Supreme Court of the United States and hearing the words ‘Mr. Hyman, you may speak when ready,’” he says. “Part of the fascination of being a lawyer is when an inconsequential case becomes a leading case in criminal law in any law school in the United States. That decision has major significance post-9/11.”
Hyman says part of the reason he was attracted to civil rights law was his experience as a history major at Lafayette, which expanded his consciousness about discrimination against blacks, Jews, and other minorities. “I fell in love with the professors in the department,” he says, calling Richard Welch a “particular mentor” and mentioning Al Gendebien ’34 and John Coleman. He also was influenced by Ed Brown, professor of Greek, who taught classics and Russian history.
As president of Pi Lambda Phi, which Hyman says was one of the few fraternities that admitted Jewish and black members, he spent a night in the Easton jail charged with disorderly conduct. Residents living near the fraternity house (now The Lafayette Inn) called the police on a warm weekday afternoon in spring complaining about a water fight on the lawn.
When Hyman was informed that the late Eric Scheinbart ’62 had been placed under arrest, he exited the house dressed only in Bermuda shorts and sandals. Approaching the police officer, he asked, “What’s going on?” The officer replied, “Get in,” indicating the police cruiser.
Hyman’s fraternity brother Matt Thomases ’62 bailed them out early the following morning. Quips Hyman, “That was the start of my understanding of social justice.”