The Accidental Lawyer

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If there was a competition for the greatest civil rights/civil liberties lawyer of the second half of the Twentieth Century, the name Anthony Amsterdam would quickly surface. While Amsterdam did not wage single-handed the fight against the constitutionality of the death penalty, those who joined him would be the first to recognize that his creativity and stamina were central to the effort.

Pure chance placed me in a Little Rock, Arkansas courtroom in the summer of 1966 when Amsterdam argued one of the first cases challenging the death penalty before a federal district court judge. I remember that Amsterdam spoke without notes, eyes focused on the judge. While most of us struggle to speak in complete sentences in such situations, Amsterdam spoke in complete paragraphs.

The judge suddenly interrupted him with a challenge, “Counsel, I am looking at the page you just cited and it does not refer to the case you rely on.” There was then a very short pause. “Your Honor, the cite is correct. Perhaps your volume is misbound.” Amsterdam then continued his argument as the judge and the audience sat in stunned silence. It turns out this was not the first time that Amsterdam corrected a judge who tried to correct him on a citation. See Michael Meltsner, Cruel and Unusual (1973) p.80.

Such stories are now part of the Amsterdam legend, but I write to point out another aspect of the Tony Amsterdam story worthy of our attention. Amsterdam was an “accidental lawyer” twice over. Accident– or fate– led him to be a lawyer, and later intervened to involve him in the fight to end capital punishment.

As his oral history makes clear ( Amsterdam’s decision to go to law school was partially negative in nature. He was more interested in literature and art history than law, but did not feel he would enjoy the nitpicking nature of graduate studies in those fields. So he tried law school out as a possible career while continuing to audit courses in literature and art history during his years in law school.

Now his story starts to take on a mythical dimension. These intellectual diversions did not prevent him from graduating summa cum laude and becoming the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Law Review. Even more amazing is that he also found time to write what might be the most influential student note in American legal history, turning the “void for vagueness” doctrine from a detail in criminal law doctrine into a centerpiece of the Warren Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.

Amsterdam’s legal career would have been judged a huge success if he ended it after his clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter at about age thirty. But it was actually just beginning. Amsterdam had just returned to the University of Pennsylvania Law School as an assistant professor when fate or fortune intervened once again. One of his colleagues was active in the legal affairs of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the law office that brought us Brown v Board of Education. When he discovered that a conflict prevented him from attending a meeting of the Fund to discuss new strategies, he asked Amsterdam to take his place.

It turns out that the topic discussed that day was whether the Fund should get involved in cases involving capital punishment. Even though this was not technically a “race” issue, the overwhelming majority of defendants executed were African-Americans. Amsterdam contributed his thoughts to the discussion in such a lucid manner that the lawyers at the Fund invited him to join them in the fight. As they say, the rest is history— Amsterdam took the lead role in a half-century struggle to end the death penalty that now looks like it has an excellent chance to succeed.

Was it fortune or fate? I like to think it was both—and a little more. That “more” is a form of intelligence we can learn from today. Let’s remember Amsterdam’s “positive” reason for attending law school. It was his realization, generated by Brown v Board of Education, that law might be “a force for creativity,” maybe even “a force for change.” He was sufficiently intrigued by that possibility that he gave law school a chance:

“I suddenly realized that the law could be a place where one could be creative. I mean, a bunch of lawyers had suddenly upset not only a way of life but a way of thinking about life. Brown v. Board of Education was a profoundly innovative move and it gave me the idea that it might be worth exploring whether law was a career in which I could do something that was creative, that was interesting, that was imaginative, alive, adventurous, and — unlike graduate school and literature, unlike art history — it might actually pay you enough to eat lunch sometimes.”

It might well be that Amsterdam never really committed to law until he subbed for a colleague at that meeting of the NAACP Inc. Fund. Perhaps it was then that he recognized that law was a career that allowed not only creativity, but also agency and authenticity. I mean “agency” as opportunity to change the world, and “authenticity” as using his talents in a cause that reflected his core beliefs.

Our reaction to stories of people as brilliant as Amsterdam is usually a combination of awe and frustration. We are in awe of their accomplishments and frustrated that we don’t possess the talents they used to accomplish their feats. But, even if we can’t speak in complete paragraphs, we can emulate Tony Amsterdam in carefully deciding what we want from a career and investigating closely what career might best serve those values.


  1. charles farnsworth says

    John,I didn’t know this background about Amsterdam. But I did meet him in the summer of 1965 when I and 15 other law students were prepped for the rape-capital punishment survey we did in 11 southern states. Tony gave us the law to look at; Marvin Wolfgang told us how to fill out the questionnaire. And off we went. I’ll tell you more when I see you. One of our group wrote a book about that summer titled Race, Rape, and Injustice. I can also tell you about our guile in getting around.Chuck


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