• This biography of William "Bill" Moses Kunstler is published in two parts. This is Part 1, which continues and concludes on Part 2, the latter page also including, at the end, full references for this biography.

William Moses Kunstler grew up a privileged youth, the son of a doctor, with black servants. He later came to believe that most white people are racists.

Every legal community has a Kunstler, the lawyer who will fight, stand, yell and scream if necessary.

When he was 17, Kunstler was visiting Italy and came across Michelangelo’s statute of David. The museum guide's interpretation of the statute stayed with Kunstler: there David stood, at the critical moment before he chose to throw a stone and confront Goliath. David could have chosen to blend into the crowd but instead chose to make a difference.

In the 1950s, William Kunstler had a quiet life with his first wife, and his two first daughters, Carol and Jean. He had served as a major in the army in World War II where he experienced the discrimination towards black soldiers that were given menial tasks.

Kunstler saw action battles in the Philippines and in New Guinea.

On one occasion, a Japanese soldier charged at him with bayonet raised and thrust it through Kuntsler’s arm. Anther US soldier shot and killed the Japanese soldier.

A month later, Kunstler was in Japan and he made the effort to locate and talk to the Japanese soldier’s parents and told him that their son died a hero.

[William Kuntsler]

Kunstler then attended law school and opened his first law firm with his brother. He wrote a law book called The Law of Accidents. He was a Democrat and joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

He received a telephone call suggesting he enlist behind the legal team helping out the Freedom Riders. In his 1995 article on Kunstler, Randall Coyne wrote:

"The Freedom Riders, primarily young men and women of both races, courageously rode interstate buses, trains and airplanes throughout the South, hoping to force the integration of segregated transportation facilities."

Kunstler went to the office of Jack Young and joined the team and faced a judiciary of bigoted judges and lawyers and from that point on, he often took civil right cases.

As the Vietnam War brought the draft, in 1968, 9 Catholics stole draft records and burned them. The event was not kept secret and they were arrested. Kunstler told them to confess and use the time in Court to explain their actions. The accused got three years prison term.

In 1968, civil rights activists crashed the Democratic Convention. The Chicago police beat up the protesters.

Eight were chosen, including Bobbie Seale, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and charged with crossing state lines for the purposes of conspiracy to start a riot.

In 1969, Kunstler accepted to act for the defendants in the Chicago Conspiracy trial. For Kunstler, it was the trial that instigated over-the-top legal theories that would later bring upon him a wrath of criticism, even from his own family. During the cataclysmic Chicago Conspiracy trial, Kunstler honed his theory that justice and the law were not synonymous and that the Courts apply the law; that the only absolute was justice, not the law.2

He let his hair grow and started taking drugs. He allowed the trial to turn into a farce, his clients referring to the prosecution as kangaroos and showing up in Court wearing judge’s robes and police uniforms. On racism, he later said:

“Most white people falsely think that black people are more capable of crime….

“The Courts are part of the white power structure and the function of the district attorney and the courts is to see how many third-world people that can put away quickly and safely.”

[William Kuntstler circa 1970]Bobby Seale, a Black defendant began embroiled in a personal war with the judge, Justice Julius Hoffman (1895-1983), who Searle called a “racist, a fascist and a bigot” in open court.

The judge, well known for his abrasive style, replied:

“Anyone who would stand up in a United States courtroom and call a judge a racist is utterly absurd.”

Searle: “What about my constitutional rights, judge?”

When Searle would not stop interjecting, he was bound and gagged to his seat in the courtroom (it later resulted in a mistrial of the charges against Searle). One of the jurors later said that this is when she realized that she could not trust her own government. Kuntsler rose and asked:

“Your honor, when are we going to stop this medieval torture that is going on in this courtroom? This man wants to defend himself. This is an unholy disgrace to the law…. I just feel so utterly ashamed, Your Honor, to be an American lawyer at this moment.”

The old, bespectacled, white judge peered over his glasses and scowled at Kunslter:

“You should be ashamed … of your conduct in this case.”1

Protesters, including Black Panther leaders, began to gather outside the Courthouse demanding that the trial be stopped and that Searle be freed. Weeks later, the leader of the Chicago chapter was shot dead in his bed by the local police, egged on by the FBI.

Kunsler took to the press and said:

“I killed him. Just as every white people in America has killed every black man because we’ve stood by, racists all of us, watch society continue a slavery that was supposed to have died a hundred years ago.”

Kunstler returned to the courtroom and when he stood, was asked by the judge to sit down. He refused.

“I am not going to sit down unless I am forced to sit down.”

Judge Hoffman: “I have had enough of your insults this morning.”

Kunstler: “Your Honor, I am not being insulting.”

Judge: “You’ll sit down or we’ll arrange to have you out down.”

Abbie Hoffman (defendant): “Are you going to gag the lawyers too?”

It was extraordinary conduct for a lawyer in trial but Kunstler was playing with fire, using the courtroom as a stage. He was proud of it and saw it as a legitimate response to the Court’s denial of basic rights denied his clients.

During jury deliberations, Kunstler was found in contempt of court on 24 counts, and sentenced to a four year, thirteen-day prison term, the longest contempt sentence ever given to an American lawyer (it was later overturned). He announced that he was proud of the conviction because he, too, could feel the oppression of the justice system.

He appealed the contempt conviction and was granted bail but the trial had cost him his marriage. He travelled around the country as a celebrity of the civil rights movement.

< ... continued at Part 2 ... >

• This biography of William "Bill" Moses Kunstler is published in two parts. This is Part 1, which continues and concludes on Part 2, the latter page also including, at the end, full references for this biography.