Darlene Fife, co-founder and editor of the 1960s French Quarter underground newspaper NOLA Express, looks back at the late Richard Sobol's defense of civil rights and Quarterites.
Richard Sobol, a lawyer who practiced in New Orleans for over 20 years, died March 24, 2020, at the age of 82. His civil rights work included cases involving school desegregation, employment discrimination and, most famously in 1968, Duncan v Louisiana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of trial by jury in criminal cases was "fundamental to the American scheme of justice."
The Sonoma West obituary says that: In the early ’90s, Sobol wrote a well-regarded book, “Bending the Law: The Story of the Dalkon Shield Bankruptcy,” which won the American Bar Association’s 1992 Silver Gavel Award as an outstanding contribution to public understanding of the American system of law and justice. (The Dalkon Shield, an IUD, was a birth control device.)
The SQ obituary also refers to the Duncan Vs. Louisiana case and the 1967 arrest of Gary Duncan: These two cases are at the heart of a new book “Deep Delta Justice,” by Matthew Van Meter, which is scheduled to be released by Little Brown in July. They are also the focus of a new documentary, “A Crime on the Bayou,” that is due to be released this summer.
Richard’s AP obituary focuses on his civil rights work and can be found here.
New Orleans/French Quarter work
As a friend of Richard and his wife, Annie, for over 50 years, I would like to focus on the legal work he did for the New Orleans Quarter culture in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.
I first met Richard sometime in the spring of 1966. Robert Head and I had arrived in New Orleans in February of 1966, and by spring we were a part of the New Orleans Committee to End the War in Vietnam. I can see Richard sitting quietly in the back at one of our meetings, most often held at Robert’s and my apartment at 710 Ursulines. I recall my pride at our group’s radical stance - in contrast to a lawyer’s commitment to the rule of law.
I was aware of Richard’s civil rights work, but our friendship was more about French Quarter culture and the struggle to end the war in Vietnam.
Richard for a long time kept in his apartment the Women Strike for Peace banner, Who Profits from this War? The banner had hung on the side of a St. Charles trolley which we had rented for a demonstration in 1967. When plain clothes police (members of the New Orleans Intelligence Squad) took photos of each person as she entered the trolley, several were intimidated and afraid to board.
Four of us sued the police department for intimidation and preventing the expression of constitutional rights. Richard represented us. At my deposition, the police department lawyer asked me the usual questions - name, address – then, without breaking rhythm, he suddenly said, “Are you a CIA agent?"
Richard jumped to his feet and said, “Don’t answer that.” The judge agreed the question was irrelevant.
Robert and I were indicted for obscenity in the mails [through NOLA Express] in January 1970. I met with Richard in the Fatted Calf restaurant and said, “You told me they didn’t take us seriously.”
“I knew you’d say that,” he replied.
We were represented by Richard, who at the time was working for the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC), and by John Martin, chief of the criminal division in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office. Judge Alvin Rubin dismissed the indictment in September, 1970.
Richard was one of the Quarter’s many admirers of Jim Degraff. Jim sold marijuana and LSD. The admiration was not based on sales, but because anyone who knew Jim could see that he had attained inward freedom, a worthy goal.
Jim represented himself in a 1972 trial for selling LSD. Richard and fellow attorney, Joe Marcal, assisted in the defense. Jim did not deny selling LSD; his intent was to show that LSD was beneficial.
Dr. Andrew Weil testified as an expert witness. Richard questioned him on his LSD research and his conclusion that LSD was not harmful. Dr. Weil said to illustrate just how harmless it was, he had taken some right before the trial.
In May of 1972, Jim was sentenced to four years in prison.
In 1973 the New Orleans city council was considering a law to prevent Hare Krishna people from passing out information in the streets. Worried that such a law could also apply to NOLA Express, Richard wrote a letter to the Council saying that “NOLA Express stands ready to defend its Constitutional rights.”
Robert and I left New Orleans in 1974, as did Richard and Annie.
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