Rose Zoltek-Jick

Northeastern University School of Law

Northeastern University School of Law

My name is Rose Zoltek-Jick and I am on the faculty here at Northeastern. Mike came to us as our Dean in 1979 and I am honored to have been asked from amongst his colleagues to moderate this first panel on Michael as a champion of civil liberties.

We are going to hear from three illustrious speakers, Professors Margaret Burnham from Northeastern, Randy Kennedy from Harvard, and Mark Brodin from Boston College. Our time together is short and so I am not going to say much more about them, nor their scholarship. I am sure that they will forgive me as we all want the focus of our celebration to be on Mike and on his career. Margaret and Randy are going to focus their remarks on Mike’s time at the Legal Defense Fund (LDF); Margaret, with her perspective as his colleague and fellow lawyer then and there, and Randy—although he was a summer intern at LDF after his first year of law school—will talk about Mike’s work at LDF from a different vantage point. Mark will then follow. His talk will shift our focus to Mike’s career as a teacher, his teacher at Columbia, and Mike’s pioneering work with Phil Schrag on the clinical education of law students, creating and championing the type of education Mike wished he had received back in the day at Yale and but only received on the job at LDF. The practical on-the-job training at the LDF that was the “Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer” marked only the beginning of the making of the remarkable person we are celebrating today.

Before turning today over to our panel, I am going to spend a moment recounting two of Michael’s’ remarkable achievements that we are not going to be covering today, even as we celebrate Mike’s work as a lawyer and the cases for which he was responsible, his contributions to the field of legal education, and his work on capital punishment.

Each of those alone would be enough to celebrate a career. But they are only a small measure of Mike’s contributions to the legal landscape. A Festchrift is designed to lift up the full range of a person’s scholarly contributions—a festival of all of their writing—so these contributions cannot go unmentioned, especially with so many of Michael’s collaborators in these endeavors present in the room and with us today.

I am going to highlight two lesser-known aspects of Mike’s prolific oeuvre, not just as scholarly achievements but also for what they tell us about his generative self that defies silos, categorization, genres and conventions about what an academic does and what a career looks like. And in that, I hope we will also be able to see a measure not only of his writing but be able to celebrate the measure of the man.

First, although Mark will be speaking about the clinical course and collaborative efforts between Mike and Phil Schrag during Mike’s years at Columbia, we do not have the time discuss the further work Mike did in the field of legal education after he came here to Northeastern. Together with Dan Givelber and Jim Rowan, Mike continued to write about supervision and the ways in which clinical and experiential education allow the complicated and rich human dynamics between lawyers and their clients to have their rightful place in understanding the full scope of what it means to be a lawyer. He brought into the halls of academe what it means to develop within students a nuanced sense of the complexities and rewards of professional responsibility, to own the fullness of their lives as lawyers.

The depth of Mike’s commitment to legal education also took him away from Northeastern. He took on a consultancy to Vermont Law School on the design of their curriculum. And he went from being not only the Dean and Distinguished University Professor here at Northeastern, the highest accolade we have, to being the director of a first year legal skills program. Now it was at Harvard and he did design the whole program, but Michael went from the highest post at a law school and at a university to training at the most granular level, working with the foot soldiers of legal education, the legal writing and research folks who do the grunt work of making folks into lawyers. That is the opposite of the usual hierarchical trajectory of a career.

That didn’t bother him. Or if it did, it didn’t stop him. Michael is able to push himself beyond those social stratifications. He is about the work, the commitment and the passion to do it right, to do the work of a full-throated commitment to the law as expressed through a re-imagining of educating a lawyer. When Michael commits, he commits. All in.

Next, I am going to briefly highlight an unheralded part of Michael’s career. Most of you will know about Michael's representation of Muhammad Ali in the restoration of Ali's boxing license. Ali's license had been denied, seemingly because he was a felon, but in reality, because Ali had refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Michael's representation of Ali may be well known, but what is less understood is that from that lawsuit, Michael came to understand the effect that a conviction may have on someone's life. He himself makes this connection in his new memoir, With Passion: An Activist Lawyer's Life. (pgs 298-300).

Michael Meltsner with his client Muhammad Ali.

Michael Meltsner with his client Muhammad Ali.

Mike is one of the first scholars to turn our focus to the world of collateral consequences and I am going to trumpet that achievement now. In 1973, together with two of his students, Marc Caplan and William Lane, Michael wrote an article in the Syracuse Law Review. Before even going further, I am going to ask this assembled group of scholars, how many of us have put our students on as co-authors as opposed an acknowledgment in the first footnote, especially when it is a piece for our tenure file? Michael’s generosity in promoting and supporting others in their growth is only the beginning of this story.

In one of the most descriptive and least poetic titles of any of his articles, An Act to Promote the Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders in the State of New York, the model legislation the three of them wrote focused on the barriers to employment for offenders released from prison. Three years later in 1976, the Model Act was enacted in New York State as Chapter 23A. This act is the inspiration for the "ban the box" movement and Mike is the father of that movement, even if the movement doesn’t fully know it. Now, let us shift forty years later. In 2013, Mike recruited his old LDF colleague, Frank Heffron, who had moved to New Hampshire and was then a member of its 400 person House of Representatives, to sponsor legislation to the same effect. Michael asked me to work in this effort. Frank and I succeeded, at least in part, but that is a story for another day.

But in the story of this barely-known achievement, there are more lessons to be learned about our man, Michael.

First, Michael doesn’t give in and Michael doesn’t give up. The tenacity of his commitments last a lifetime.

And secondly, Michael’s focus on capital punishment, about which we will hear later this morning, didn’t stop at saving people from death. It was and is about the generative part of life, about a vision for second chance, for re-invention of a life, for the endless possibilities for human growth and change. A belief in people and their dignity is at his very core. These two achievements deserve their own talks, and there are others as well. So after our formal remarks, I will open it up to the floor and although you are encouraged to ask questions of our panel, I would encourage those of you in the audience who wish you were on this panel—and those of my colleagues who think they should have been chosen to fill my spot-- to use this opportunity to add an anecdote or give an assessment that adds to this tribute to Mike and his many and varied accomplishments, the ones we will have highlighted and the ones where, due to the limitations of time, we will not have even mentioned.

Because we know we are only doing Short Takes here. Michael is a man who has fought “Rape, Race and Injustice” all of his years as a lawyer and as a playwright, has exposed what is done in the torture years at Guantanamo “In Our Name”. And who does it all “With Passion”, a memoir about his life as an activist lawyer that will be released next week. The title of this new memoir perhaps says it all. Michael has lived his life in the law with passion, marrying scholarship and activism, lawyering and educating lawyers, defying silos of genre, convention and conceptions as to what defines a career.

But what is behind the passion; what spurs the activism? The through-line, I would suggest, is a core commitment to equality and human dignity, a belief in the potential in every human being to be as generative as they have the talent to be. As he is generative, so does he believe in that for others. And while he fights for the underdog, the fight is not only “for” someone or in service; it is also in the name of connection, compassion, empathy, alliance, and comradeship.

Professor Meltsner in his office, circa 1979. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University Libraries.

Professor Meltsner in his office, circa 1979. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University Libraries.

This commitment to people, to their full humanity, to their equality and dignity is not just legal, social or political-- although it is surely all of those things. Michael is an activist who cracks open genres to use any form to let us see what he sees about the outer world, about the society in which we live. That is the “civil” in civil liberties.

But a commitment to “liberty”, dedicating one’s life to human freedom is an existential, indeed a spiritual, commitment. Michael may be religiously secular – even adamantly so –but in him, those terms are a false opposition. His passion, his tenacity and his dedication is an act of faith in humanity, a belief in the human and humane. Michael has put not just the energy but his soul into this work, this work of liberation, this work of creating liberty and fighting for it. It is an expression of his spirit and it is about the spark of the divine spirit that he sees in every human being. In every legal arena and using every mode of rhetoric to have us understand this deep conception of civil liberties, a world that embraces the full expression of human liberty and dignity, Michael has fought the good fight. To borrow a phrase made famous by his most famous client, Muhammed Ali, Mike is our champion, the champion of our world.