Some individuals named to the Law's Hall of Fame, in either their actions or in the person, are controversial nominees. But we'll take our chances on Gustin L. Reichbach, a New York Supreme Court judge who died of cancer on July 14, 2012.
Gustin (known to his friends as "Gus") Reichbach was born on October 9, 1946 in Brooklyn, the son of a union organizer.1
He attended the State University of New York at Buffalo taking his bachelor of arts in 1967, and where he was the president of a Jewish fraternity.
He studied law at Columbia University Law School, situated in New York City where he obtained his J.D. in 1970. But Reichbach was in the thick of things as a student antiwar activist during the 1968 Columbia University campus revolt and strike. A picture of him going nose to nose with local police made it to the cover of the national Newsweek magazine.
Reichbach then co-authored a book (The Bust Book: What To Do Till The Lawyer Comes) with Kathy Boudin, the latter later sought by the FBI for blowing up a house in Greenwich Village. Boudin, now a professor at Columbia University. In the interim, his friend Kathy Boudin served 22 years in prison for her part in a 1981 robbery that killed two police officers and a Brinks security guard.
Gus Reichbach's participation in all of the above activities almost prevented him from being called to the New York bar as law professors actually showed up to testify, some in favor but some against his admission. In fact, his career was delayed by two years as he struggled with loyalty hearings before the character committee of the New York State Bar Association, attracting the attention of the Harvard Law Review:
"... character investigations of applicants (for admission to the bar) with a background of suspect political activity can be quite lengthy. For example, the application of Gustin Reichbach is still pending in New York although he received notice of having passed the bar examination in December, 197o. During this period the bar committee has conducted five hearings inquiring into the applicant's participation in student demonstrations and his co-authorship of a book entitled, The Bust Book: What To Do Until The Lawyer Comes."2
Reichbach killed this time by volunteering at the New York Law Commune, a local non-profit law firm, "representing the Black Panthers and Abbie Hoffman".3
He never regretted his actions at law school, Columbia University:
"I had to stick to my principles, even if it meant losing the career I had wanted all my life. In the end, what else is there in life but our sense of right and wrong? If we give these up we have nothing."3
Lawyer And Judge
In 1972, he was called to the New York State Bar, and began a series of different attorney positions. He published a book in the same year he was also called to State bar of California, 1975. His law book, Raising and Litigating Electronic Surveillance Claims.
Reichbach became a member of the New York City Civil Court of King's County in 1991 and then, in 1999, he was elected to the Supreme Court of New York.
Reichbach often took judicial independence to its limits. On one occasion, when he was frustrated with the daily rounding up of prostitutes who are simply immediately released, he invited a local group to set up a table outside the doors of his courtroom to provide the parade of prostitutes with condoms, counseling and HIV testing. The Daily News of New York City featured him on their front page, with the headline "Condom Judge".
In another case, he ordered a landlord be confined inside one of the apartments she rented until the dangerous living conditions she had ignored were taken care of.
Conscious of the intimidation of the court room, he did not wear his severe black gown unless he was sentencing. He once said he did not want justice system participants, in his courtroom at least, thinking of him as "some kid of a religious figure'.
His court room was described as follows:
"Over the jury box, he has a picture of Paul Robeson, whose career was largely destroyed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and on the wall over his bench, a scale of justice in red and blue neon lights. On the back wall, he has a picture of striking coal miners."3
Gustin Reichbach also had some significant involvement in international law taking a leave of absence from the New York Supreme Court to serve in 2003 to sit on the War Crime Tribunals in Kosovo, Yugoslavia. In an interview he gave when he got the appointment, he said:
"'I was never interested in why people conform. I have always been interested in those who resisted, those who did not go along with the crowd but charted another course."3
Hardly could Justice Reichbach have known that he would be best known as the marijuana judge by the time of his death. The historic moment came on May 16, 2012, laid bare for all the readers of the New York Times. Justice Reichbach, a sitting judge of the New York Supreme Court, a jurisdiction in which the possession and use of marijuana was and still is illegal, penned one of the most poignant opinions ever signed by a judge.
He said that in 2009, he was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer and that his time left on this earth was estimated to be between 4 to 6 months.
That he survived for almost 4 more years is a certainly a testament to his strength if not his courage especially as he stoically accepted the options of chemotherapy and surgery a result of which, the cancer disappeared ... "only to return".
Gus Reinbach had the great sorrow to lose his own daughter, Hope, who died in 2011, a most untimely tragedy for Justice Reichbach, struggling as he was with his own mortality.
In April 2012, he agreed to wear a drug pump that slowly injected him but did nothing to help him with his constant symptoms of nausea, pain and dramatic weight loss. Even sleep became elusive.
In his New York Times article, Justice Reichbach revealed that he had taken to smoking pot:
"... (to) inhale marijuana is the only medicine that gives me some relief from nausea, stimulus my appetite and makes it easier to fall asleep….
"Given my position as a sitting judge still hearing cases, well-meaning friends questioned the wisdom of my coming out on this issue. But I recognize that fellow cancer sufferers may be unable, for a host of reasons, to give voice to our plight. It is another heartbreaking aporia in the world of cancer but the one drug that gives relief without deleterious side effects remains classified as a narcotic with no medicinal value…. Criminalizing an effective medical technique affects the fair administration of justice…."
New Yorkers and legal watchers around the world, some with sympathy, some with a feeling of outrage at the thought that a sitting judge would decide for himself which law to follow and which law to break, and that for self-serving reasons, and then to publish this choice to the world at large.
But Justice Gustin Reichbach, as it always done since his college days, was ready to go nose to nose with the establishment and even risk his position.
Certainly, the employment and social stress of his public confession could not have helped him in what was in fact his last sixty days of life as he died on July 14, 2012 at his home in Brooklyn. He was only 65.
Of him, his colleague Justice David Schmidt of the Brooklyn Supreme Court said:
"He was one of the smartest, knowledgeable, and kindest men I have ever known. What impressed me the most about [Judge Reichbach] was how he dealt with adversity: pancreatic cancer and the loss of his beloved daughter Hope, his shining star. He was a fighter until the clock ran out."
Justice Reichbach is survived by his wife Ellen Meyers.
Mr. Justice Reichbach, Thank You & R.I.P.
Around the world, jurisdictions struggle with the prospect of legalizing marijuana. Nobody wants to create an economy fed by the Hells Angels or organized crime. No parent alive ought to be comfortable with a child of theirs taking that most dangerous first step on the spiral of drug usage, a spiral from which not all have been able to jump free and clear.
But to not make marijuana available on a controlled medicinal basis certainly does smack of legal idiocy and as he had always done in the past, when Gustin Reichbach got a whiff of legal idiocy, he would go nose to nose with the law if need be, and fight even until his clock ran out.
- Boudin, Kathy and others including Gustin Reichbach, The Bust Book: What To Do Till The Lawyer Comes (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1970), 159p.
- Democracy Now!, Forty Years After Historic Columbia Strike, Four Leaders of 1968 Student Uprising Reflect, April 25, 2008 (retrieved form the Internet on 18 Sept. 2013 at http://www.democracynow.org/2008/4/25/forty_years_after_historic_columbia_strike)
- Dwyer, Jim, Gustin Reichbach, Judge With a Radical History, Dies at 65, the New York Times, July 17, 2012, retrieved from the Internet on September 18, 2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/19/nyregion/gustin-reichbach-judge-with-a-radical-history-dies-at-65.html?_r=0
- NOTE 1: Hass, Temoor, Justice Gustin Reichbach Dies at 65, July 18, 2012, retrieved from the Internet on September 18, 2013 from http://obituaries5.blogspot.ca/2012/07/justice-gustin-reichbach-dies-at-65.html
- NOTE 2: 85 Harv. L. Rev. 221 (1971-1972), at page 221, footnote #54.
- NOTE 3: Hedges, Chris, Public Lives; A Judge in the Mold of Hoffman (Abbie, That Is), New York Times, July 1, 2003
- Reichbach, Gustin, Raising and Litigating Electronic Surveillance Claims (San Fransisco: Lakes Law Books, 1975)