Charles Halpern

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Charles Halpern

Template:TOCnestleft Charles R Halpern is a lawyer and social activist and is regarded as the "father" of Public Interest Law. He is a Visiting Scholar, Boalt Hall School of Law University of California at Berkeley.

Education and early career

The son of a judge, Charles Halpern earned his Bachelor of Arts in American history and literature from Harvard College in 1961 and his Law degree from Yale Law School in 1964. He then clerked for two years with Judge George T. Washington of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Halpern joined what was then known as Arnold, Fortas & Porter in 1965, as the 30th lawyer in the firm.

The name partners were New Deal alumni who "had been creative designers of government institutions and programs to promote the public welfare"[1]

Paul Porter, was a former chairman of the Federal Communi­cations Commission. Abe Fortas was a an intimate counselor to Lyndon Johnson and the center of the firm. Thurman Arnold, had been a professor at Yale Law School and wrote "The Folklore of Capitalism", which won him the attention of President Roosevelt, who appointed him head of the antitrust division of the Justice Department and later a court of appeals judge in Washington.

Civil rights activism

Halpern postponed starting at Arnold, Fortas & Porter to spend a month in Lou­isiana with the Lawyers Constitu­tional Defense Committee doing volunteer legal work in support of the civil rights movement. The previous summer was the Missis­sippi Freedom Summer, when many Northerners went south to work in the civil rights movement.

One night Halpern attended a meeting in a rural black church near Monroe, where James Farmer, then director of the Congress of Racial Equality, was speaking;

"The audience was made up of two white lawyers, a few civil rights organizers and local people—shopkeepers, students and sharecroppers, who were risking their livelihoods and possibly their lives by being there. After hearing Farmer’s resonant voice describe a new world in which blacks would be able to vote and to go to integrated schools, we all sang We Shall Overcome."

Despite its brevity, my time in Louisiana had fundamentally changed me, though it had no major impact on the civil rights movement. I had glimpsed another kind of law practice, where my work had meaning for me and the larger society, as well as my clients. Arnold & Porter, on the other hand, would require some compromises. Would they be worth it?

Interest in legal activism

One day in 1966, Halpern received a call from David Bazelon,[2]then chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where Halpern had clerked.

Bazelon was a crusader from the bench for the rights of the mentally ill. He had handed down an opinion in a case involving a man named Charles Rouse who had been arrested for a misdemeanor, found insane, and confined for four years at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, the appalling "House of Bedlam" immortalized in Elizabeth Bishop's poem. Bazelon opined that even the mentally ill had rights. His appellate ruling would require re-hearings at the district court level, and he wanted Halpern to serve as Rouse's lawyer. Arnold and Porter let their young associate handle the case.
The district court did not accept Halpern's arguments that the "treatments" at St. Elizabeth's were a sham, but on appeal Halpern successfully argued that Rouse had never consented to the insanity plea that resulted in his indefinite confinement. Rouse was released, civil rights would soon be extended to the mentally ill, and Halpern was hooked on the potential of what would soon become known as public-interest law. "No one," he writes in his memoir, "was challenging these mental hospitals and holding up their practices to Constitutional scrutiny.

Halpern soon realized that social change mattered more to him than making money.

My real satisfaction and most imaginative work during my years at Arnold & Porter was associated with pro bono matters. During the Vietnam War, the decisions of local draft boards—which determined whether young men would be granted the status of conscientious objectors—were often unreported and inconsistent. Some friends and I created the Selective Service Law Reporter, generating a body of precedent that was easily accessible. That allowed lawyers to give more sophisticated advice to their draft-age clients.
Another potential pro bono matter grew out of my civil rights work in northern Louisiana.
The most frightening town in that area was Jonesboro, a center of racist resistance and CORE organizing. The main employer in the town was a paper mill that had been bought by Crown-Zellerbach, a San Francisco-based corporation with a reputation for good works and community responsibility. But it had done nothing to desegregate the plant or integrate the workforce. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made these practices illegal, but the corporation did not want to disrupt its operations and unsettle the local customs by complying with the law.

It occurred to me that stockholders ought to have the right to demand that the corporation comply with the law. I did some basic research on the legal theory and found that there was a good argument that a stockholder could maintain such an action.

Before I could bring the case, I had to get approval from the firm’s management committee. Thurman Arnold, wearing a seersucker suit with cigar ashes streaking his shirtfront and vest, greeted me with a question: “I don’t suppose that Crown-Zellerbach is doing anything different from other companies down there, do you?” After some desultory discussion, the com­mittee turned the case down, and once again I was left frustrated, confronting the limitations on practice in a firm that is devoted to corporate representation.

Work with Institute for Policy Studies

Halpern became involved with radical Washington DC "think tank" the through Arnold & Porter. The firm handled IPS's legal work and partner Thurman Porter had been an IPS trustee before disagreeing with IPS over their militant anti-Vietnam War stance.

Halpern became corporate secretary to IPS, keeping minutes and records. he began to attend IPS seminars and parties at the Institute and at the home of founder Marcus Raskin, where he met radicals like Paul Goodman and Ivan Ilich.

When Raskin and several other activists were arrested for conspiring to obstruct the military draft, Halpern helped with the defense. Halpern flew with Raskin to a meeting with the other defendants and their lawyers at the Greenwich Village home of radical lawyer and secret Communist Party USA member Leonard Boudin[3].

Halpern served as Raskin's informal legal adviser, assuming that Arnold & Porter would represent him. They refused, out of loyalty to Lyndon Johnson[4].


After a few years at Arnold & Porter, Halpern was ready for change. he was partly inspired by the writings of another lawyer Charles Reich.

Susan and I discussed a series of articles in the New Yorker written by Charles Reich, my old constitutional law professor (and, ironically, an old Arnold & Porter associate who left the firm before I joined it). He criticized the traditional liberal response to social problems—passing new legislation, creating a new bureaucracy to enforce the law, increasing the size and power of the federal government. He had been moving toward a different, deeper agenda for change, which he spelled out in the New Yorker articles and later in his book The Greening of America. His analysis resonated deeply with me.
Reich contended that a new consciousness was emerging among young people that was going to transform our institutions, creating a new kind of revolution—one based in love, an expression of the authentic self and an inclusive sense of community. The new consciousness was joyous, communitarian, ecological, compassionate and spiritually rooted. His analysis seemed like a revelation, holding out a possibility of wholeness. It suggested that the intellect, the body, the emotions and the spirit might converge.

In 1968, Halpern and three other activist lawyers founded the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), with initial funding from two left-wing foundations, the Stern Fund and the New World Foundation and later the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. CLASP is widely regarded as the first "public interest" law firm.

In its first two decades, CLASP researched and litigated a broad array of social-change cases, in areas ranging from mental health to civil and economic rights to the environment.

CLASP helped train[5]the first generation of public interest lawyers while constantly challenging the Nixon Administration on environmental and civil rights issues. Public Interest law was further boosted in 1982, when Halpern became founding Dean of the CUNY Law School in Queens. Halpern's curriculum was specifically designed to train "public interest" lawyers.

"Insider" criticism

Not everybody[6]has been impressed with Charles Halpern's work.

Peter Metzger and Richard Westfall's 1980 booklet "Government Activists: How they rip off the poor" had this to say;

Having surrounded themselves with the mantle of claiming to "protect the public interest" and the welfare of the poor,these activists, what The Wall Street Journal calls "the public interest law industry,". have in fact been parasites on the poor.
Ironically, it was not the press, television nor Congress that made this startling revelation. It was a prominent member of the "public interest law industry" itself who said that he had no idea how people in the Movement came to be viewed as being in the "public interest".
Harvard Law Professor Abram Chayes said, "I think Charlie Halpern (founder of the radical

Center for Law and Social Policy) probably invented it as a con to the (Ford) Foundation, but it's sort oflike the Peoplés Republic. Once you get it, you relax and enJoy it if it sticks. And you don't get guilty about whether you deserve it all that much or not.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation

After his stint at CUNY, Halpern became president of the new $400 million Nathan Cummings Foundation, a major funder of left wing organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies.

Demos and the Obama connection

In 1999/2000 while founding the New York based "think tank" Demos and serving as its first Board Chair, Halpern was still President and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

To set up Demos Halpern, recruited[7]such heavyweights as David Callahan, Rob Fersh, Stephen Heintz, Sara Horowitz, Arnie Miller, David Skaggs, Linda Tarr-Whelan and a then obscure State Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

By 1999, Halpern had assembled a talented working group to develop Demos. Among them were David Callahan, a fellow at the Century Foundation; Rob Fersh, a long-time policy advocate; Stephen Heintz, Vice-President of the East-West Institute; Sara Horowitz, founder of Working Today; Arnie Miller, a leading executive recruiter; Barack Obama, then a state senator from Illinois; David Skaggs, a congressman from Colorado; and Linda Tarr-Whelan, an internationally recognized expert on women and economic development. This working group would eventually form the core of Demos' staff and Board of Trustees.

Demos is listed on the Institute for Policy Studies website[8]as an IPS "partner" organization.

Charles Halpern remains an (on leave) Demos Founding Board Chair Emeritus.[9]