Skip to main content

Kunstler, William Moses

Kunstler, William Moses

(b. 7 July 1919 in New York City; d. 4 September 1995 in New York City), lawyer who gained national notoriety for his radical legal philosophy in the 1960s and, in the following decades, for his spirited defense of a broad range of accused anarchists, murderers, terrorists, social outcasts, and political pariahs.

A self-proclaimed radical and political outsider for much of his professional life, Kunstler grew up in the comfortable middle-class world of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the eldest of three children born to Monroe Bradford Kunstler, a proctologist, and Frances Mandelbaum, a homemaker. He was an indifferent student in his early public-school years and, in his words, a “rebellious” youth, but he graduated first in his class from DeWitt Clinton High School (Manhattan Annex) in 1937 and went on to Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, where he joined the swim team and took up boxing. In his senior year he was a coauthor (with William Stone) of a privately printed volume of poetry, Our Pleasant Vices, and graduated in 1941 with a B.A. degree in French and membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

Kunstler enlisted in the U.S. Army on 3 September 1941 and served in the Pacific as an officer in the Signal Corps, participating in the 1944 invasion of Leyte in the Philippines and later in the occupation of Japan. He received the Bronze Star and was mustered out in March 1946 as a major. Before going overseas on 14 January 1943, he had married seventeen-year-old Lotte Rosenberger, a distant cousin and refugee from Germany; they had two daughters and divorced in 1976, the year in which he married Margaret Ratner, a lawyer, with whom he also had two daughters.

In the autumn of 1946, Kunstler, along with his brother Michael, was admitted under the GI Bill to a special two-year program at Columbia University Law School. To meet expenses, he wrote book reviews for the Sunday editions of the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times and taught a writing course in Columbia’s School of General Studies (1946–1950). Graduating with an LL.B. in 1948 and admitted to the New York bar that same year, he began an executive training program at R. H. Macy, the huge New York City department store, but withdrew in 1949 to join his brother as a partner in Kunstler and Kunstler, specializing in matrimonial, estate, and family law.

As the firm’s practice grew, Kunstler moved to Westchester County, New York, in 1950 and settled into the suburban round of commuting, work, and family. But, despite his rising fortunes, he was bored with the routine of everyday law and through the next decade devoted his spare hours and weekends to writing and teaching, which, he said, he found more fulfilling. Starting in 1950 he taught law as an associate professor or lecturer at New York Law School (1949–1961, 1992), Pace Business School (1951–1960), the New School (1965–1966, 1970–1971, 1989), and Cooper Union (1986–1987), all in New York. He continued his freelance book reviewing and contributed essays to Saturday Review and Atlantic Monthly, among other magazines, and produced three books on the law: The Law of Accidents (1954), First Degree (1960), and And Justice for All (1963). Beginning in the late 1950s he wrote and narrated a number of scripts on famous trials for local radio stations in New York City and occasionally served as a radio host or panelist on programs dealing with legal questions or current events.

When he turned forty, Kunstler remained restless and uncertain about his professional life. But, he later wrote, his life changed forever when, on 15 June 1961, he was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to fly to Mississippi as its representative among the Freedom Riders, young blacks and whites who were riding interstate buses to force integration of segregated transportation facilities in the South. Recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that it was “required of a man to share the passion and action of his time,” he agreed to go. Taking on Freedom Rider cases throughout the South on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality, he became special counsel to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

During the summer of 1961 Kunstler discovered an obscure federal statute from the Reconstruction era that permitted removal of certain cases from state to federal courts and successfully argued in federal court for its application in the contemporary South to prevent local courts from taking precipitous action against civil rights workers. That same year, Kunstler convinced the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case involving a black journalist, to overturn on constitutional grounds a federal statute requiring a passport for reentry to the United States. These decisions, he said, proved to him that lawyering could make a difference and that he and the law could, in fact, play a role in changing society.

From the summer of 1961 onward, he became deeply involved in major cases seeking to desegregate schools and public facilities across the South and later in the North. He successfully appealed the convictions of black ministers involved in the bus boycotts in Birmingham, Alabama, and later defended student leaders like Stokely Carmichael (in Alabama, 1966) and H. Rap Brown (in Maryland, 1967) against charges of incitement to riot or insurrection. He challenged federal jury selection in the Southern District of New York (Westchester County, Manhattan, and the Bronx) on the ground that the method “systematically” excluded minorities.

Despite the demands of these and dozens of other cases, Kunstler completed four well-received books: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1961), about the trial of Caryl Chessman, the so-called “Red Light Bandit” whose execution in California had stirred up international protests against the death penalty; The Case for Courage: Ten Lawyers Who Risked Their Careers in the Cause of Justice (1962); The Minister and the Choir Singer (1964), about the notorious Hall-Mills murder trial in 1922; and Deep in My Heart (1966), a memoir of his years with Dr. King.

By 1966 he had turned his attention to the war in Vietnam. As legal counsel to members of the antiwar movement and to radical groups on both coasts, he crisscrossed the country, often alone, sometimes with a team of lawyers, to aid clients whose ideologies ranged from anarchism to pacifism, including the Black Panthers in California (1966) and opponents of the draft in Maryland (1967). He was sentenced to prison in 1970 for contempt of court during the notorious Chicago Conspiracy trial, in which he defended eight radical protesters who had disrupted the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Indicted on federal charges of crossing state lines to incite violence, the defendants turned the courtroom into political theater. They and Kunstler repeatedly mocked the presiding judge, berated the prosecution with profane language, and delivered lengthy political harangues. All of them were acquitted of criminal conspiracy, five were found guilty of criminal incitement to violence, and all of them, including Kuntsler, were cited for contempt and “outrageous behavior.” All were released pending appeals and in time were exonerated of all charges. In 1971 Kunstler was one of the independent observers called for by inmates at Attica prison in upstate New York during their bloody standoff with prison guards and later represented a number of them in court.

Kunstler became a familiar figure on television: a tall, angular man with a rich baritone voice, a craggy face, and flowing dark-brown (but graying) hair, his glasses characteristically pushed up on his forehead, given to provocative, often inflammatory, statements that got under the skin of his opponents. Some of his critics called him a publicity hound and questioned his penchant for trying cases by the seat of his pants, improvising as he went along. But even his critics found him eloquent, and many of them conceded that he won the majority of his cases through his superior legal skills and inventive application of the law rather than the histrionics he sometimes employed.

From 1970 until his death he continued to defend unpopular clients in high-profile criminal cases. Among the best known was his successful defense in 1987 of Larry Davis, a black drug dealer charged with the attempted murder of nine New York City policemen. Davis was acquitted on the principal complaint but was found guilty of the lesser charge of weapons possession and sentenced to four years in prison. Kuntsler created a furor in 1991 by winning an acquittal for an Islamic revolutionary, El Sayyid Nosair, accused of murdering Meir Kahane, leader of the militant Jewish Defense League in New York, and in 1993 by defending three resident aliens accused (and eventually found guilty) of the World Trade Center bombing in Lower Manhattan. Kunstler served briefly as attorney for Colin Ferguson, a black man who killed six commuters on a Long Island Railroad train in 1993. Kunstler and his associate Ronald L. Kuby unsuccessfully argued that Ferguson was innocent of criminal intent, having been driven to violence by “black rage” against white oppression. Ferguson subsequently chose to defend himself, dismissing Kuntsler and other court-appointed attorneys; he was found guilty on all counts in 1995 and sentenced to a term of 200 years.

Kuntsler’s client list reflected his radical legal philosophy, which proceeded from the premise that American society and its legal system were corrupted by a racism so pervasive that all blacks and most minorities were denied political, economic, and social justice, that the criminal justice system was ultimately fashioned to keep the underclasses hobbled, and that the aim of government at every level was to eliminate dissent and opposition. He said it was his responsibility as a lawyer to expose the system and to defend the most socially undesirable from the overweening power of the state because all criminal trials were political in nature.

Kunstler claimed to represent many of his clients for free or for sharply reduced fees, because, he said, he had abandoned “the economic escalator” and had learned to live simply. He drew a small salary and travel expenses from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which he and other activist lawyers had set up in New York. He spread the story that his principal income came from lecture honorariums on college campuses and such money as his (now sporadic) writing and book reviewing might bring in. Kuby, who became his partner, told an interviewer that this was an exaggeration and that their firm had an income from fees. Kunstler’s major asset at his death was his Federal row house in Greenwich Village, which he purchased in 1979 to use as his home and law office.

Kunstler dictated his autobiography to Sheila Isenberg, who shaped his narrative into My Life as a Radical Lawyer (1994). In 1995 he developed severe heart disease and received a pacemaker in August. He died a month later in Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Three thousand mourners filled the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for a memorial service. His remains were cremated and the ashes strewn across a mountain outcropping in the Catskills.

Kunstler’s legal papers from the law firm of Kunstler and Kuby (1984–1995) and a collection of his articles from 1984 until his death are in the law offices of Ronald L. Kuby in New York. The bulk of his legal papers and his personal papers are held by his widow, Margaret Ratner. As a general rule, the legal papers are protected in perpetuity by the attorney-client privilege and are not accessible to researchers. His autobiography, My Life as a Radical Lawyer (1994), should be read with caution, because Kunstler was given to self-aggrandizement, invention, and exaggeration in telling his life story. David J. Langum, William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America (1999), corrects some of its factual misstatements and challenges some of Kunstler’s interpretations of events. See also Jeffrey Rosen, “The Trials of William Kunstler,” New York Times Book Review (18 Sept. 1994). A convenient summary of Kunstler’s political and legal philosophy is in “An Interview with William Kunstler,” in Jonathan Black, ed., Radical Lawyers: Their Role in the Movement and in the Courts (1971). For Kunstler’s role at Attica, see Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica (1972). For his role in the pivotal Chicago Conspiracy case, see J. Anthony Lukas, The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities: Notes on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1970), and Tom Hayden, Reunion: A Memoir (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 Sept. 1995).

Allan L. Damon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Kunstler, William Moses." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Jul. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Kunstler, William Moses." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kunstler-william-moses

"Kunstler, William Moses." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Retrieved July 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kunstler-william-moses

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.