Before retiring to Sebastopol, he defended the oppressed and changed state courts for the better
Sebastopol resident and longtime civil rights attorney Richard Barry Sobol died on March 24 from pneumonia. He was 82 years old.
Sobol was born in New York City, but spent much of his life in Louisiana, which he first visited as a young attorney in the mid-1960s during the civil rights movement.
Sobol, who graduated from Union College and Columbia Law School, went to Louisiana in the summer of 1965 as a part of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, an organization created to provide legal assistance to the civil rights movement. What was supposed to be a three-week stint as a volunteer lawyer turned into a life’s work, and he spent the next 50 years fighting for the rights of African Americans and against discrimination in the justice system and in employment.
Duncan vs. Louisiana: The right to a jury trial in state courts
Sobol was most famous for his defense of Gary Duncan, a 19-year-old black man in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana accused of “battery” on a white teenager. Duncan, who had no prior convictions, had come upon two of his younger relatives, talking to a group of four white teens on a rural road. His cousins had recently complained of racial harassment at the hands of schoolmates, so Duncan stopped his car and encouraged his cousins to get inside. He claimed he had merely laid his hand on the white boy’s arm and told him to go home in an effort to defuse a tense situation. Duncan was found guilty of “simple battery,” sentenced to 60 days in prison and fined $150. Duncan’s request for a jury trial was denied.
The case, Duncan vs. Louisiana, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court’s decision ultimately established the right to a jury trial in state courts. (Previously, the right to a jury trial was limited to federal courts.) On May 20, 1968, in a 7-to-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of trial by jury in criminal cases was “fundamental to the American scheme of justice,” and that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, states were obligated to provide jury trials.
Sobol himself became a target of the white establishment in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, embodied by district attorney and outspoken segregationist Leander Perez, who accused Sobol of practicing law in Louisiana without a license.
Sobol’s wife, Anne Sobol said, “Louisiana like most other states had a statute which said that if you were introduced to the court and practiced in conjunction with a member of the state bar you could practice in the court. Richard had been introduced, in this case, by Robert Collins,” an attorney from an all-black law firm in New Orleans.
It was a bogus claim, but Sobol was arrested and briefly jailed. The case dragged through the courts until it was ultimately dismissed.
These two cases are at the heart of a new book “Deep Delta Justice,” by Matthew Van Meter, which is scheduled to be released by Little Brown in July. They are also the focus of a new documentary, “A Crime on the Bayou,” that is due to be released this summer.
Apodaca vs. Oregon: The right to a unanimous jury decision in state courts
Another Supreme Court case that Sobol was involved in was back in the news this week. In 1972, Sobol argued the case of Apodaca vs. Oregon before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a defendant in state court should have the same right to a unanimous jury decision that defendants in federal courts do. Although unanimous verdicts are required in the federal courts, states have a choice about whether to require unanimity. Only two states, Louisiana and Oregon, allow non-unanimous verdicts. From a segregationist standpoint, the reason to support non-unanimous juries was to insure that, should black jurors manage to get on a jury, they could always be outvoted by the white majority. Sobol took the position that a unanimous verdict was necessary to meet the reasonable doubt requirement, but in a split decision, in Apodaca, the Supreme Court disagreed and held unanimous juries were not required by the US Constitution.
This loss stung, Anne Sobol said. She was gratified to see that this week, in Ramos vs. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Apodaca decision, supporting the right of defendants in state courts to a unanimous jury decision.
A career devoted to justice
Sobol taught at the University of Michigan Law School and then founded a law firm in Washington, D.C., to pursue civil rights litigation. He lived there until returning to Louisiana in 1991.
In the early ’90s, Sobol wrote a well-regarded book, “Bending the Law: The Story of the Dalkon Shield Bankruptcy,” which won the American Bar Association’s 1992 Silver Gavel Award as an outstanding contribution to public understanding of the American system of law and justice. (The Dalkon Shield, an IUD, was a birth control device.)
According to Anne Sobol, “It was one of the first times that a big company used bankruptcy to get out from under tort claims,” involving women who’d been hurt or killed by the device.
The Sobols moved from New Orleans to Sebastopol in 2013, where they found both the natural environment and the political sensibilities of the town to their liking. Sobol especially enjoyed walking on the Joe Rodota and West County trails. In failing health, he took his final walk on the trail on Thanksgiving 2019.
Sobol is survived by his wife of 45 years, Anne Buxton Sobol, and his daughter, Joanna Sobol McCallum of Los Angeles, and close friends George and Sonia Segal of Graton and their son, Matthew Greenbaum.
Learn more about Sobol’s work in this video interview from the Library of Congress, loc.gov/item/2015669114/. Sobol also wrote about his experience with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee in Louisiana in a 2016 essay which you can find in the sidebar to this article.