Martin Stolar, Lawyer Who Fought for Social Justice, Dies at 81

Martin R. Stolar, a prominent civil rights lawyer who in the early 1970s defended war resisters and inmates who rebelled at Attica prison, as well as initiating a landmark case restraining the New York Police Department from spying on left-wing activists, died on July 1 in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Elsie Chandler, said he died in a hospital after suffering heart failure while awaiting surgery for a broken hip.

Mr. Stolar was one of a generation of idealistic lawyers who, inspired by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, forsook lucrative careers to lend their expertise to social justice causes.

“He had a practice that not only defended needy people, it propelled social movements,” said Franklin Siegel, a Distinguished Lecturer at the City University of New York School of Law, who knew Mr. Stolar for nearly six decades.

The righteous fervor of others in the so-called movement dimmed over the years, but Mr. Stolar’s did not. If anything, it got more feisty.

Weeks before his death, he was on an organizing call about defending Columbia University students who had been arrested for protesting the Gaza war. He was also offering advice on defending climate protesters arrested after targeting Wall Street banks for financing fossil fuel projects.

Ron Kuby, the leftist lawyer and talk radio host, shared a text message he received from a climate activist who was in court in Manhattan to observe the cases of more than 100 protesters on the day Mr. Stolar died.

As the news spread, the activist texted Mr. Kuby, “those who knew Marty” wept, and those who didn’t know him were left “wondering why all their lawyers were crying.”

“Marty was one of the last of an amazing generation of movement lawyers who stood with demonstrators, protesters and dissenters for decades as they fought for a more just world,” Mr. Kuby said in an interview.

Mr. Stolar’s most lasting impact may have been the 1971 class-action lawsuit he proposed and jointly filed with a colleague, Jethro M. Eisenstein, against the New York Police Department over its use of informants, agents provocateurs and wiretaps to monitor lawful political activity.

“The two of us were three years out of law school, totally wet behind our ears, having no clue what we were getting into,” Mr. Eisenstein, who at the time was a New York University law professor, recalled in an interview.

The suit was later joined by three other lawyers, including Mr. Siegel, and dragged on for years. It eventually led to a milestone settlement in 1985, known as the Handschu agreement. Under its terms, the police are required to submit to an oversight board that monitors surveillance.

The Handschu lawsuit had grown out of accounts of police spying revealed during the sensational 1971 trial of the Panther 21, members of the Black Panther Party who were charged with plotting to blow up police stations. The courtroom drama lasted months and ended in the acquittal of all defendants.

The Panthers’ defense was run by the New York Law Commune, a radical legal office of which Mr. Stolar was a member, as was his law school classmate and romantic partner, Veronika Kraft. The commune made decisions collectively and paid members, including clerical workers, according to their needs.

As a commune member, Mr. Stolar helped defend the Camden 28, a group of mostly Roman Catholic war resisters who in 1971 broke into a draft-board office to destroy records.

Though the defendants acknowledged their acts, they were acquitted — an act, in part, of jury nullification, which was seen as a referendum on the Vietnam War. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. of the Supreme Court called it “one of the great trials of the 20th century.”

After the law commune disbanded in the early 1970s, Mr. Stolar maintained a private practice out of its offices at 640 Broadway in Lower Manhattan. As president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive organization, he focused on the pro bono defense of activists arrested en masse during protests and acts of civil disobedience. When 1,800 demonstrators were arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, Mr. Stolar handled more than 250 of the cases.

The tools Mr. Stolar developed for the mass defense of protesters became a template used during the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

Following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when government authorities rounded up more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, and held some of them for months without charges, Mr. Stolar represented several detainees.

“I was a small voice in the wilderness saying, ‘We can’t do this, it’s un-American,’” Mr. Stolar recalled in an interview with Mr. Siegel printed in the program when he received a career award from the Lawyers Guild this spring.

In 2006, Mr. Stolar defended a Pakistani immigrant, Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station. Mr. Stolar argued that his client had been entrapped by police intelligence officers and a paid informer who infiltrated Mr. Siraj’s Brooklyn mosque, in violation of the Hanschu agreement. Mr. Siraj was convicted.

Martin Robert Stolar was born on April 2, 1943, in Syracuse, N.Y. and raised in Rochester, N.Y. He was the middle of three sons of Sig Stolar, the director of the Y.M.H.A. of Rochester, and Jesse (Scaum) Stolar.

He graduated with a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1965 and earned his law degree from the New York University School of Law in 1968.

He and Ms. Kraft had two daughters, born in 1974 and 1977, though the couple never legally married. They both believed that the government had no business in their private lives. Ms. Kraft died of breast cancer in 1978.

Mr. Stolar married Ms. Chandler, a criminal defense lawyer at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in 1993.

She survives him, as do his daughters, Danya Henninger, a journalist in Philadelphia, and Tamar Kraft-Stolar, a director of the Women & Justice Project in New York; two grandchildren; and his brothers, Michael and Jeffrey.

While fresh out of law school, Mr. Stolar volunteered to represent poor clients with the national service program VISTA, which sent him to Columbus, Ohio.

Before admitting him to practice, the Ohio bar asked a series of “character” questions that were a legacy of the McCarthy era. Mr. Solar refused to answer, on First Amendment grounds, if he belonged to “any organization which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force.”

After the Ohio bar rejected him, Mr. Stolar sued, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-to-4 ruling, the court reversed the Ohio bar. Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority that Ohio had no legitimate interest in probing “so broadly into areas of belief and association protected against government invasion.”

The case set a precedent, limiting bar groups from imposing a political litmus test. Mr. Stolar went on to defend other law school graduates facing challenges from “character committees” before being allowed to practice.

“It’s always been clear to me that what I want to do with my law degree is do political work,” Mr. Stolar once said. “I’ve never been a rich lawyer, but I’ve gotten a lot of political capital over the years, which has made me rich.”

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