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Lawyer’s Hero, Ladies’ Man July 19, 2008

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Janet Higbie, Chelsea, NY

I came to know Ira and Ruth fairly recently, when I was in my last year at New York Law School, and he was a young man of 93. I was researching Kong Hai Chew v. Colding, one of Ira’s greatest cases, and I was fascinated to listen as he talked for hours about his life and work. One line in particular has stayed with me from those talks.

ira-higbieIra, like others in the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born and the Lawyers Guild, represented clients called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington and its New York State counterpart in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. There was a continuing debate among the lawyers about how to handle their clients’ predicament: If they testified that they had done nothing wrong, they would be jailed for perjury; if they refused to answer certain questions, they would be found in contempt; if they invoked the Fifth Amendment, they sounded like criminals.

Ira and some of his allies came up with a strategy that essentially turned the tables. Since the committee was ignoring the principle of relevance, they would too. At mock hearings, they prepared their clients to confront the committee members with questions about their voting records, lectures on the Constitution, and free-association riffs on any question they were asked. One client, asked to state his name for the record, answered, “My mother named me Patrick, because St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland!” This would enrage the committee, and Ira would be asked to control his  client; he would just shrug and try not to laugh. Eventually, the client would claim the Fifth, but not without lecturing the committee on its purpose, to protect people from false accusations.

Ira summarized the HUAC-baiting strategy with a wry rhetorical question. “It’s a game of cat-and-mouse,” he said, wagging his finger. “But who is the cat and who is the mouse?” I love that line, and find inspiration in it, because it encapsulates the determination, resourcefulness, and humor that carried him through dark times.

My other favorite memory is more recent. When Ruth fell ill, Ira, then 96, threw himself into caring for her, approaching the problem like a legal case — reviewing the options, researching the medical aspects, conferring with experts, and hiring a top-notch lieutenant, Wendy Clarke. Still, he found the energy to keep up his reputation as a ladies’ man, though in actual practice that involved nothing more than heavy-duty flirting and big hugs to friends of any gender. One day this January, I was at St. Vincent’s, where a small crowd, including Jocelyn McCalla, the long-time Haitian rights advocate, had gathered to try to help Ira help Ruth, who was barely conscious. After a half-hour, I headed down the hall with Jocelyn to go out for a bite to eat and some computer advice. Ira, feigning envy, waved his hands in the air and called after us, “Oh, to be 90 again!”


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