Tears for Lynne Stewart

Remembering radical Lynne Stewart's legacy #lawyersmakehistory
Remembering radical Lynne Stewart's legacy #lawyersmakehistory

Thoughts on the Passing of a Lawyer, Convict, Crusader, Human

Somewhere in the sphere of women I admire floats Lynne Stewart, whom I first became aware of in the 1990s. She seemed then one of those true-believer lawyers willing to take on wholly unpopular clients. Described elsewhere as looking like a feisty librarian—apparently, at one point, she actually was one—she seemed to me to be a true New Yorker, liberal, outspoken, not intimidated by the establishment, by judges, by anyone. As I remember it, she appeared on local news reports fairly often, or often enough for me to remember her, and she always had something to say. She did not dress up. She reminded me of my great great aunt Emma, who also did not dress up, who typically had something to say, and who often could be found picking huckleberries on her farm.

Lynne Stewart seemed to stand up for the little guy, who was not necessarily a good guy, to try to prevent government over-reaching. To that end, she represented Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, known as the blind cleric from Egypt, and he was imprisoned after being found guilty of planning to blow up New York City landmarks.

Stewart visited the sheik in prison and apparently passed communications from him to his followers, and for that she got into a bit of trouble. Her trial took place in 2004, and unlike so many defendants, she actually testified.

She spoke up for herself, but she also cried. Julia Preston, On the Stand, Lawyer for a Terrorist Sheik Shows Strain, N.Y. Times, Oct. 28, 2004.

Radical lawyer, willing to defend the Constitution, not easily intimidated, cried. A female lawyer making her way in a world full of male ones let them see her sweat.

I remember being amazed at the time that she had done this. Another Stewart, Martha, whom I admire for very different reasons (who else could build an empire making pies?) also got into a very different sort of hot water at around the same time, also endured a trial, but did not testify and thus, as far as I know, did not cry in public. But the feisty radical lawyer hero did.

Both went to prison. Martha did her time. Lynne, sentenced to a much longer term, was also imprisoned, but then was let out early on the grounds of compassionate release. She had cancer and was dying. She got out of prison in 2013. She had been disbarred. She died in March 2017.

What have I learned? Heroes are human. People with the courage to take heroic actions are not necessarily heroes all the time, or admirable all the time. In my more perfect vision of Lynne Stewart, she would never have cried in that courtroom and she would not have tried to get out of prison early.

But she also had a life, a spouse, adult children. Who knows what else she did. What I do know is that she is still intriguing, still worth learning about, still worth remembering, and still worth admiring in some measure. She took on clients, wholly unpopular ones, sometimes very despicable ones, to defend their rights. Do I personally consider her to have been a political prisoner? No, but there are those who do.

—Lori Tripoli

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