Vol. 7 No. 6 (June 1997) pp. 308-310.

DEFENDING RIGHTS: A LIFE IN LAW AND POLITICS by Frank Askin. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997. 215 pp. Cloth $45.00. Paper $15.00.

Reviewed by Gloria C. Cox, Department of Political Science, University of North Texas.
 

Reading Frank Askinís brief book of memoirs and recollections, DEFENDING RIGHTS: A LIFE IN LAW AND POLITICS, is a lot like reading about an endangered species, since Askin is a true, lifelong, unapologetic liberal. Even when U.S. politics moved toward greater conservatism in the 1980s, Askin stayed the course, never wavering from his support of the rights of workers, affirmative action programs, the reproductive rights of women, and various aspects of individual freedom. From his involvement as a young man with the Communist Party to his career as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, Askin strongly and proudly supported various aspects of rights, even when the general public neither understood nor embraced many of them.

DEFENDING RIGHTS begins with Askin describing his early involvement in politics, from campaigning for presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948 to demonstrating in front of the White House for workersí rights. Not surprisingly, Askinís activities on behalf of what the FBI viewed as left-wing organizations and causes made him the subject of agency scrutiny, since it was the 1950s when our national pastime was looking for communists. In fact, the FBIís surveillance of Askin continued for more than a decade, from his early career as a labor organizer and journalist until his graduation from law school in 1967. Like many other activists of his era, Askin eventually used the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of the FBIís files on him. We can surmise from this book that Askin enjoyed reading the comments made by those who observed him, finding their file entries both outrageous and interesting.

A man deeply committed to his beliefs, Askin gives the impression that FBI surveillance was a mere minor annoyance that proved insufficient to deter him from working toward his goals. In pursuit of an opportunity to bring to the courts some of the issues he found important, he worked to establish the Constitutional Litigation Clinic in the Law School at Rutgers where he was a faculty member. The clinic not only gave aspiring attorneys a chance to work on actual cases involving civil rights and liberties, but it also made high-quality legal representation available to individuals who otherwise might not have sought redress of their grievances. The clinic also made experienced public interest litigators out of a number of students while they were still in law school, although it is unclear whether the interest of the students predated their involvement with the clinic or was developed by their work there. Overall, the clinic gave Askin and his students the chance to be players, not just bystanders, in litigation about important civil liberties issues.

In fact, the heart of DEFENDING RIGHTS is Askinís discussion of several issues of considerable importance that were taken up by Askin either on his own or in his capacity as director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic. For example, Chapter 5 deals with individuals Askin refers to as the "long-haired travelers," drivers in New Jersey who were subjected to stops by the state police because they had the long hair and beards associated with hippies. The litigation in this case spanned a considerable period of time mainly because it was dragged out by a hostile judge, a "judicial troglodyte" who died before the case was concluded. A second judge assigned to the case remarked that "this case killed Judge Shaw; itís not going to kill me." It did, or at least something did, inasmuch as Judge Kitchen died just two weeks later. Although the litigation in New Jersey accomplished little to deter stops targeted at persons of a certain look or demeanor, the issue was eventually taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of DELAWARE v. PROUSE. In that case the Supreme Court ruled that general roadblocks are acceptable while targeted stops without suspicion are not. However, the civil libertarians among us will note that this issue remains alive as state troopers routinely stop individuals they believe fit the profile of drug couriers.

The subject of another chapter is whether the management of shopping malls must permit political activity to take place on their premises. Inasmuch as shopping malls are privately owned businesses, many would accept unquestioningly the claims owners and managers usually make that they are justified in prohibiting any political activity. Frank Askin does not share that viewpoint, arguing instead that malls have become what town squares were in an earlier era, i.e. places for people to gather and participate in community activities. Moreover, todayís malls are already hosting many noncommercial activities, including exercise classes for senior citizens, blood drives, beauty pageants, and satellite police stations. Askin tells the story of an exchange that took place when the mall issue was argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court. When an opposing attorney labeled as ridiculous the argument Askin made that malls are modern town squares, one of the justices observed that the attorney might want to consider that he was in court representing the Rockaway Townsquare Mall.

Even though I found the book a pleasure to read, it is not altogether clear why Askin undertook the project. After all, he has neither held public office nor occupied a high-profile appointive position. Since he twice unsuccessfully sought election to Congress, we can conclude that he aspired to a role in legislative policy making. In fact, Askin had opportunities to play a legislative role by serving as assistant to certain members of the House, including Representatives Frank Thompson, Jr. and John Conyers. Even though Thompson was implicated and later convicted in the Abscam sting operation, Askinís fondness and respect for Thompson come through clearly in his comments about him. It was as an aide to Conyers, however, that Askin had the most influence on policy. Askin found that Conyersí policy views were remarkably similar to his own, so Conyers allowed Askin to become involved in more issues and controversies. Most notably, Askin assisted Conyers in his effort to keep Robert Bork off the Supreme Court. As might be surmised, the reader will not find praise for Bork in DEFENDING RIGHTS.

Despite all the battles in which he has participated, Askin comes off as a remarkably calm and even-tempered person, even when he is recounting flagrant offenses committed against him by the government. An example that well illustrates the kind of treatment he endured took place when he reported for induction into the Army in 1952. Askin writes that he was certain that the FBI had contacted the Army to make sure the defense of the nation would not be entrusted to a person as dangerous as he. Whether it was the FBIís interest or Askinís refusal to sign a loyalty oath, the Army decided his services were not needed, so he was processed for separation from the military. Only years later did he get his general discharge converted to an honorable one!

The author is also refreshingly candid in his remarks. Askin is simply unwilling to do the kind of verbal dance many people do these days to be certain that all of their utterances are sterile and inoffensive. The aforementioned reference to one judge as a "judicial troglodyte" is just the beginning, as Askin goes on to refer to an article in the WASHINGTON TIMES as "Moonie ravings." He considers the presence of William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court as an affront to constitutional rights and describes Clarence Thomasís service on the court as a "constitutional tragedy." Askinís candid remarks add welcome spice and humor to DEFENDING RIGHTS.

There is also an appealing simplicity and elegance to some of Askinís comments. He describes himself as "living in Brooklyn with a wife, a child, no job, and a failed ideology." Commenting on how the fifties gave way to a decade that was much more conscious of peopleís rights, he noted that "The outcasts of the 1950s became public heroes in the 1960s." And on a subject dear to the heart of virtually every reader of this journal, Askin tells us that "it is probably true that academic politics is to politics as military music is to music." Just as we all suspected!

DEFENDING RIGHTS should prove to be interesting to the reader who follows civil liberties issues, since Askin explores several important and relevant topics in the field. It should also be of interest to the individual who follows the American Civil Liberties Union, since Askin provides a brief but enlightening discussion of ideological divisions within the organization as well as how the ACLU makes decisions. Finally, DEFENDING RIGHTS might be enjoyed by the student who aspires to a career in public interest law. The book would surely whet the appetite of the individual whose heart was already on the same side as that of Frank Askin.


Copyright 1997