Samuel Leibowitz

Samuel Leibowitz

Infobox Person
name = Samuel Leibowitz

caption =
birth_date = birth date|1893|8|14
birth_place = Romania
death_date = death date and age|1978|1|11|1893|8|14
death_place =
other_names =
known_for = Defending the Scottsboro Boys
occupation = Lawyer
alma_mater = Cornell University
nationality = flag|United States

Samuel Simon Leibowitz (August 14, 1893 – January 11, 1978) was an American criminal defense attorney, famously noted for winning the vast majority of his cases, who later became a judge in New York City.

Early years

He arrived in New York City on March 17, 1897 with his parents, Isaac and Bina Lebeau, immigrants from Romania. [Quentin Reynolds, "Courtroom: The Story of Samuel S. Leibowitz" (Popular Giant., 1952 ed). pp 30] . They arrived on the Kensington. [Reynolds, Courtroom. pp 365]

Samuel's father americanized his last name to fit in.

The family lived in a tenement on Essex Street on the Lower East Side. His father had a small shop in East New York. He attended Jamaica High School and Cornell University.

He eventually married a woman named Belle.

Representation of the Scottsboro Boys

Although he worked as counsel in dozens of notorious trials, Leibowitz is best remembered as counsel for the Scottsboro Boys, nine Southern African-American youths who were falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death in Alabama in 1931. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions in "Powell v. Alabama" (1932), Leibowitz was brought into the case by the International Labor Defense, an affiliate of the Communist Party of the United States. Although many people expressed surprise that the Communists would ask Leibowitz to lead the Scottsboro defense, as he was not a communist or radical but a mainstream Democrat who had never been associated with class-based causes. The choice of Leibowitz convinced many that the Communists were serious about achieving justice for the Alabama defendants, and not just interested in making political hay. Leibowitz was asked to accept as co-counsel, however, the ILD's chief attorney, Joseph Brodsky.

After reading the record of the first trials and becoming convinced of the defendants' innocence, Leibowitz accepted the ILD's offer. He did so against the urgings of his wife and many friends who told him that he had no chance defending African-American defendants accused of raping white women in the Alabama of the 1930's. Leibowitz would work for the next four years on the cases without pay or reimbursement for most of his expenses.

Leibowitz quickly became an object of loathing around Decatur when he opened his defense of Haywood Patterson, the first defendant to be retried, by challenging Alabama's exclusion of blacks from the jury rolls. Local hatred of Leibowitz grew uglier, as death threats were made against him ["Kill the Jew From New York". Decatur, 1933.] after his tough cross-examination of alleged victim Victoria Price. One national reporter overheard several people saying, "It'll be a wonder if he gets out of here alive." Five uniformed members of the National Guard were assigned to protect him during the trial, with another 150 available to defend against a possible lynch mob.

Leibowitz was stunned by the jury's guilty verdict in Patterson's 1933 trial. He compared the verdict to "the act of spitting on the tomb of Abraham Lincoln." Back in New York after the trial, Leibowitz vowed to defend the defendants "until hell freezes over." Speaking before enthusiastic audiences sometimes numbering in the thousands, he promised to take guilty verdicts to the Supreme Court and back until Alabama finally gives up: "It'll be a merry-go-round, and if some Klu Kluxer doesn't put a bullet through my head, I'll go right along until they let the passengers off." Leibowitz's determined efforts won the affection of his clients. Haywood Patterson said of Leibowitz, "I love him more than life itself."

After an Alabama judge ordered a new trial for Patterson and the state transferred the cases to the courtroom of Judge William Callahan, Leibowitz's frustration grew. Virtually every motion or objection Leibowitz made before Callahan was denied, virtually every motion or objection made by the prosecution was sustained. His anger showed, and Leibowitz found himself mocked, scolded, and reprimanded by the judge. After guilty verdicts and death sentences were handed to Patterson and Norris, a battle for control of the case ensued between Leibowitz and the ILD. Leibowitz's anger with the ILD exploded after two ILD attorneys were charged with attempting to bribe Victoria Price.

After the defendants' convictions were affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court, Leibowitz appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to participate in the appeal of Patterson's and Norris's convictions on the ground that blacks were systematically excluded from Alabama's juries. When Leibowitz alleged that the names of blacks appearing on jury rolls were fraudulently added after Haywood's trial began, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes asked Leibowitz if he could prove that allegation. Leibowitz, having anticipated this question, had caused the jury roll books to be brought to Washington. He asked a page to hand the jury rolls and a magnifying glass up to the Chief Justice. The documents were passed from Justice to Justice—a highly unusual thing to happen during oral argument in the Supreme Court—and the facial reactions of the eight Justices sitting indicated their disgust. The Supreme Court again reversed the defendants' convictions in Norris v. Alabama, a decision that Leibowitz called a "triumph for American justice."

After a third set of trials, Leibowitz began to involve himself again in projects unrelated to Scottsboro. He met on death row several times with Bruno Hauptmann, the German immigrant convicted of kidnapping Charles Lindbergh's baby, in the hopes of convincing him to reveal details of the crime.

In early 1937, following a series of secret meetings with Thomas Knight, Leibowitz reluctantly agreed to a compromise which would result in the release of four of the Scottsboro Boys while allowing prosecutions to again go forward against the others. Of the compromise, Leibowitz said, "I say yes, but with a heavy heart, and I feel very badly about it." In the next set of Scottsboro trials, Leibowitz allowed a local attorney to assume the more visible role, while he did the coaching. Leibowitz and others concerned with the Scottsboro Boys' welfare feared that the trials might become a refendum on Leibowitz himself, who was by then more unpopular than ever in northern Alabama.

Judicial career

After his work on the Scottsboro Boys case was finished, Leibowitz returned to his New York practice. During the 1940's, he was appointed to serve a 14-year term as a Justice of the Kings County Court, then the principal trial court for criminal matters in Brooklyn. After briefly considering a third-party nomination for Mayor of New York City, Leibowitz was reelected to his judgeship in 1954. When the County Courts in New York City were merged into the New York State Supreme Court in 1962 as part of a court reorganization in 1962, Leibowitz's title changed to New York State Supreme Court Justice. Over the years, Leibowitz heard a number of cases concerning gang activity and organized crime. He also presided over the criminal trial of Brooklyn Dodgers manager for assaulting a fan at Ebbets Field in 1945.

During Leibowitz's judicial career, his national fame increased in 1950, when he was the subject of an admiring biography by journalist Quentin Reynolds. He was also criticized, however, for alleged lapses in judicial temperament such as losing his temper with litigants and witnesses in his court. When Leibowitz reached age 70, at which time he was subject to mandatory retirement unless a board of his fellow judges certified him as fit for continued service, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York controversially opposed his redesignation to the bench. Leibowitz was eventaully reappointed, however, and served until 1969 when he reached the final mandatory retirement age of 76.

Death and legacy

Leibowitz died in January 1978. A collection of his personal and legal papers spanning the years from 1939 to 1976 is housed at the Cornell University Library. An endowed law professorship of trial advocacy at Cornell, once held by renowned lawyer, judge, and lecturer Irving Younger, is named after Leibowitz.


* Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscript Collections, [ "Guide to the Samuel Simon Leibowitz Papers, 1939–1976] .
* Cornell Law Library, [ Scottsboro Trials Collection] .
* [,9171,873183,00.html "Jurist Before the Bar] , "Time", November 15 1963.
* Quentin Reynolds, "Courtroom: The Story of Samuel S. Leibowitz" (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Co., 1950).
* "Kill the Jew From New York". Decatur, 1933.
* [ History Channel]

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