Dershowitz, Alan M.

Dershowitz, Alan M. (Morton)

(1938–  ) lawyer, professor, author; born in New York City. Admitted to the bar in 1963 after a brilliant career at Yale Law School, he served as a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg and is credited with composing the legal memo that underlay the court's opinion that the death penalty, as then applied, constituted "cruel and unusual punishment." Becoming Harvard Law School's youngest ever tenured law professor at age 28, he would remain there throughout his career, often spicing up his standard curriculum with courses on legal issues of the Vietnam War or psychiatry and the law. Meanwhile, he soon began to take on cases having to do primarily with First Amendment, or free speech issues, defending those such as Dr. Benjamin Spock in his antiwar actions, the radical lawyer William Kunstler, the porno star Harry Reems of Deep Throat, and the racist genetic theorist William Schockley. As these cases inevitably brought considerable publicity, he became known as one of the nation's leading defense and appeal lawyers, but he always insisted that he accepted cases primarily because they involved issues of civil liberties or constitutional rights; he also replied to charges that he sought out high profile cases by pointing out his donation of time and talents to many unreported cases, including those involving prisoners on death row. His most celebrated case was the successful appeal and subsequent acquittal of Claus von Bulow; Dershowitz told the story of this case in his Reversal of Fortune (1986), which was subsequently made into a movie (in which he played a bit part). An outspoken critic of what he saw as flaws in the legal system, and nearly an absolutist on behalf of every imaginable form of free speech, he wrote in defense of his aggressive tactics in The Best Defense (1982). In addition to various professional texts and other books, he wrote a widely syndicated newspaper column on the law and he has been a frequent guest on television programs involving legal matters.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.