Richard Sobol, Civil Rights Lawyer in the South, Dies at 82


In 1966, on a swampy strip of land south of New Orleans, a young black man named Gary Duncan was defusing a potential fight between white and black teenagers outside a newly integrated school when he touched an arm of one of the white boys, who recoiled. The police later arrested Mr. Duncan on charges of assault on a minor. His request for a jury trial was denied, and he was sentenced to 60 days in prison and fined $150.

Mr. Duncan and his mother asked a young, white civil rights lawyer, Richard Sobol, to represent him, which he did. Mr. Sobol fought the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In a landmark 1968 decision, the court ruled for Mr. Duncan and established the right to a jury trial in state criminal cases.

The ruling was a major victory for the civil rights movement and for Mr. Sobol, who was 29 at the time and just beginning his legal career.

Over the next half-century, he would file scores of challenges involving racial and sexual discrimination in employment, education, voting and housing. He became one of the nation’s busiest and most successful — if unsung — champions of civil rights.

Mr. Sobol died on March 24 at his home in Sebastopol, Calif. He was 82. His wife, Anne Sobel, also a lawyer who sometimes practiced with him, said the cause was aspiration pneumonia.

Mr. Sobol took on a wide range of civil rights cases, often at great personal risk and under threat of violence. In the Duncan case, he was thrown in jail on bogus charges. His release was an important victory for civil rights lawyers across the South.

In his litigation, he made particularly effective use of the new Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its Title VII, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment.

In a major lawsuit against a paper mill in Bogalusa, La. — one of the first class-action suits involving Title VII — he successfully argued that the use of tests in hiring and the use of seniority in promotions violated the Civil Rights Act.

“He was a natural,” Ms. Sobol said in an interview. “He practiced law on a whole different level from most of us.”

Mr. Sobol often said that his greatest defeat was his failure to convince the Supreme Court in 1972 that juries should be required to reach unanimous decisions. The court revisited the issue recently and, in a triumph that he did not live to see, ruled on Monday that jury decisions involving serious crimes had to be unanimous.

Mr. Sobol practiced primarily in Louisiana and Washington, D.C. But he preferred working in the trenches in Louisiana than on antitrust cases for the white shoe firm in Washington that employed him. In a description of his early career — which he wrote as a chapter for “Voices of Civil Rights Lawyers” (2017), edited by Kent Spriggs — he said that most of his work in Washington “never came to anything, certainly not to anything one could be proud of.”

By contrast, he wrote, within 10 days of arriving in Louisiana in 1965, he won a school desegregation case that allowed black children to attend white schools. “I saw the impact one lawyer, familiar with federal litigation practice, could have,” he wrote.

He stayed in Louisiana longer than he had initially planned. And across the decades he made a difference in scores of cases, big and small.

“He devoted his life to seeing that justice was done,” George Cooper, a retired professor from Columbia Law School, who met Mr. Sobol in the early 1960s and worked on cases with him, said in a phone interview.

“He was one of the legions of young lawyers who went South in the 1960s to help with the civil rights movement,” Mr. Cooper said. “But unlike so many others, he stayed on the ground and saw it through. In the process, he won notable cases but also gave a whole segment of the population a chance for justice that they might not have had otherwise.”

While prominent in legal circles, Mr. Sobol was less known to the general public. That may change with a forthcoming documentary film, “A Crime on the Bayou,” by Nancy Buirski, and a new book, “Deep Delta Justice,” by Matthew Van Meter, both scheduled for release soon.

Richard Barry Sobol was born on May 29, 1937, in Manhattan to Alfred and Anne (Alberg) Sobol. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a high school math teacher and a homemaker.

Richard attended the Bronx High School of Science before enrolling at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., from which he graduated in 1958. He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1961.

His early marriage to Barbara Simonovitz ended in divorce. He married Anne Pardee Buxton in 1975.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Sobol is survived by his daughter, Joanna Sobol McCallum. His son, Zachary, died in 1986. His sister, Marion Freed, died in 2011.

After law school, Mr. Sobol joined the powerhouse Washington law firm of Arnold, Fortas and Porter, but found the work unsatisfying.

In the summer of 1965, he used his vacation time to do a stint with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. The committee sent Northern lawyers to the South for a few weeks at a time to defend the thousands of civil rights activists who were being arrested in connection with demonstrations, marches, voter registration efforts and sit-ins.

Mr. Sobol was sent to New Orleans, where he instantly saw that his work made a difference.

“Whether I did it and did it quickly and successfully,” he wrote in “Voices of Civil Rights Lawyers,” “meant the difference between jail or not jail; integrated or segregated education; fair or discriminatory employment practices; the right to demonstrate or the denial of that right; access to public accommodations or the denial of access; the right to vote or tricks to nullify that right; and so on.”

During that summer, he realized that the struggle needed lawyers who could stay for extended periods to handle the increasingly complex litigation that the advancement of equal rights required.

His stint turned into a longtime commitment to Louisiana, where he lived off and on over the ensuing decades. He moved back to Washington in 1969 to work with Marian Wright Edelman and her Washington Research Project, which became the Children’s Defense Fund. He also founded a civil rights firm in Washington with Michael Trister. While there, he continued to handle employment discrimination cases in Louisiana. He moved back to New Orleans in 1991 and stayed until 2013.

“Richard wasn’t a traditional type of lawyer,” David Dennis, who met Mr. Sobol in the 1960s while he was working with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), said in a phone interview. “Some of these white lawyers came down and made it seem like they were making a great sacrifice. Not him. This was his life.”

Gary Duncan, the black man in the Supreme Court case, who is now 72, said in a phone interview that despite all of his activities, Mr. Sobol remained a friend.

“He was going all over the state of Louisiana,” Mr. Duncan said. “He was put in jail, and they threatened him with his life. But that never did stop him. And he never said he didn’t have time for me.”

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