Home News Melvin Wulf, Transformative Civil Liberties Lawyer, Dies at 95

Melvin Wulf, Transformative Civil Liberties Lawyer, Dies at 95

Melvin Wulf, Transformative Civil Liberties Lawyer, Dies at 95

Melvin Wulf, a constitutional lawyer who reshaped the American Civil Liberties Union into a more aggressive litigator, argued 10 cases before the United States Supreme Court and supported the future Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in bringing a landmark sex discrimination case, died on July 8 at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.

His daughter Jane Wulf confirmed the death.

As the legal director of the A.C.L.U. from 1962 to 1977, Mr. Wulf turned the organization from a passive one that mostly filed friend-of-the-court briefs in others’ cases into one that directly filed suit on behalf of people who said their civil liberties had been violated.

“Mel really transformed the culture of the A.C.L.U.,” Alan Levine, a former staff counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a phone interview. “Directly representing clients put the A.C.L.U. in the middle of the great political movements for justice and equality, namely the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movements.”

Under Mr. Wulf’s leadership, the A.C.L.U. opposed the Vietnam War, represented conscientious objectors and organized the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, a network of lawyers drawn from several groups, including the A.C.L.U., the N.A.A.C.P. and the American Jewish Committee. It provided legal representation for students, both Black and white, who traveled to the South to register Black voters during the Freedom Summer in 1964.

“That, to me, was his most outstanding achievement,” Aryeh Neier, who was the executive director of the A.C.L.U. at the time, said in an interview.

Mr. Wulf’s public profile was modest during his 15 years at the A.C.L.U., but it grew a bit in 2018 with the release of the film “On the Basis of Sex,” in which Justin Theroux portrays him, and which touches on his back story with Ms. Ginsburg, whom he had met at summer camp in the 1940s. In the film, Mr. Wulf calls Ms. Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, by her nickname, Kiki, and he sings a camp song to her when she arrives at the A.C.L.U.’s office.

In real life as in the film, Ms. Ginsburg persuaded Mr. Wulf to give her the A.C.L.U’s backing in appealing the federal case of a bachelor, Charles Moritz, who had been denied a small tax deduction for the costs of a caretaker for his octogenarian mother — a break that a woman, a widower or a husband whose wife was incapacitated would have received.

Ms. Ginsburg and her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a tax lawyer, argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. The court ruled in Mr. Moritz’s favor in 1972, holding that discrimination on the basis of sex was unconstitutional.

By then, Ms. Ginsburg and Brenda Feigen had been hired by Mr. Wulf and Mr. Neier as directors of the A.C.L.U.’s newly created Women’s Rights Project, which focused on persuading courts to treat sex discrimination as a constitutional issue equal to race discrimination and to challenge all types of legally approved sex discrimination.

Ms. Ginsburg won five of the six sex-discrimination cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court during her time at the A.C.L.U., where she was also general counsel of the project.

“He was very deferential to her,” said Kathleen Peratis, who was hired by Mr. Wulf and Ms. Ginsburg in 1974 to replace Ms. Ginsburg as a director of the Women’s Rights Project. “He gave her a bit of a hard time on the Moritz case. He thought a tax case was going to be very hard to win, because courts were usually deferential to the I.R.S. But I think he realized she had a tiger by the tail, and he was never threatened by people smarter than he was.”

Mr. Wulf left the A.C.L.U. in 1977 after months of tension with Mr. Neier, the executive director, and Norman Dorsen, the chairman. Mr. Wulf said at the time that his resignation had been “forced” because of “irreconcilable differences.” In a letter to the 85 board members of the organization and its regional and state affiliates, Mr. Wulf said that the union was in danger of becoming too accommodating to forces “hostile to individual liberty.”

Mr. Neier explained the departure by saying that Mr. Wulf’s forte was appellate strategy and the union’s priority at the time was trial litigation, at which he said Mr. Wulf was less proficient.

Mr. Wulf told the website Above the Law in 2020 that he had asked Ms. Ginsburg for help as he fought to stay at the A.C.L.U. “I asked her to come to my defense, and she told me it was ‘not in her political interest,’” he said. “She didn’t say why.”

Melvin Lawrence Wulf was born on Nov. 1, 1927, in Brooklyn and moved with his family to Troy, N.Y., near Albany, when he was 8. His father, Jack, owned a company that made men’s suits and coats. His mother, Vivian (Hurwitz) Wulf, was a homemaker.

Mr. Wulf, intending to enter the family business, attended the Lowell Textile Institute in Massachusetts for three years. But in 1950 he transferred to Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies in 1952.

After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1955, he spent two years as a lawyer in the Navy. He joined the A.C.L.U. in 1958 as assistant legal director and rose to legal director four years later.

In one of Mr. Wulf’s cases, Healy v. James, he argued before the Supreme Court that Central Connecticut State College (now University), in New Britain, had infringed on students’ First Amendment rights by refusing to let them form a local chapter of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society. The school said it feared disruption from the group. In 1972, the court unanimously affirmed the students’ right to form the chapter.

In another case, Bigelow v. Virginia in 1975, the court ruled, 7-2, on behalf of the managing editor of a Virginia newspaper, finding that his constitutional rights had been violated when he was convicted of printing an advertisement for legal out‐of‐state abortion services at a clinic in New York.

After leaving the A.C.L.U., Mr. Wulf formed a law firm with Mr. Levine and Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general. (Ms. Peratis joined them several months later.) The firm won a Supreme Court case challenging book-banning by a school district on Long Island and successfully defended two authors against libel charges brought by the Church of Scientology. But with expenses high and other factors, the firm dissolved after five years.

Mr. Wulf moved to another firm, Beldock Levine & Hoffman, which specializes in civil rights, freedom of speech and employment law. He retired in 2009.

In addition to his daughter Jane, Mr. Wulf is survived by his wife, Deirdre (Howard) Wulf; another daughter, Laura Wulf; a grandson; and his sister, Harriette Casnoff.

Mr. Wulf’s clients included two former C.I.A. agents, Philip Agee and Victor Marchetti. Mr. Marchetti, with John D. Marks, wrote “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence” (1974), which the agency sought to edit heavily, arguing that it had to clear anything Mr. Marchetti wrote. The book was published with blank spaces where 168 passages had been deleted by the C.I.A.

Mr. Agee, who had divulged the names of covert agents in a book and vowed to expose overseas agency operations, said that his First Amendment rights had been violated when Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance revoked his passport in 1979.

Both men lost their cases.

In 1975, the Supreme Court refused to hear Mr. Marchetti’s appeal of a lower court decision that he had “effectively relinquished his First Amendment rights” when he signed his employment contract with the C.I.A. Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had the right to revoke Mr. Agee’s passport on national security grounds.

Mr. Wulf, in an interview that day with The Los Angeles Times, described the decision against Mr. Agee as “one of the greatest invasions of privacy in the history of the American people,” adding, “We’re now no different from the Soviet Union and South Africa.”


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