By Marjorie Cohn
Doris ‘Dobby’ Brin Walker, the first woman president of the National Lawyers Guild, died on August 13 at the age of 90. Doris was a brilliant lawyer and a tenacious defender of human rights. The only woman in her University of California Berkeley law school class, Doris defied the odds throughout her life, achieving significant victories for labor and political activists.
Doris’s legal and political activism spanned several decades and some of the most turbulent but significant periods in US history. She organized workers, fought against Jim Crow and McCarthyism, was active in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements and actively opposed the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At UCLA, Doris became a Marxist. After she was sworn in as a member of the California State Bar, Doris joined the Communist Party USA, remaining a member until her death. Upon graduation from law school, Doris began practicing labor law; but a few years later, she went to work in California canneries as a labor organizer. When Cutter Labs fired Doris in 1956, the case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the Court refused to hear the case, Justice Douglas, joined in dissent by Chief Justice Warren and Justice Black, wrote, “The blunt truth is that Doris Walker is not discharged for misconduct but either because of her legitimate labor union activities or because of her political ideology or belief. Belief cannot be penalized consistently with the First Amendment … The Court today allows belief, not conduct, to be regulated. We sanction a flagrant violation of the First Amendment when we allow California, acting through her highest court, to sustain Mrs. Walker’s discharge because of her belief.”
Doris returned to the practice of law and represented people charged under the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (the Smith Act) in California. The Act required all resident aliens to register with the government, enacted procedures to facilitate deportation and made it a crime for any person to knowingly or willfully advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence. The work of Doris and other NLG lawyers led to Yates v. United States, in which the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Smith Act defendants in 1957. After Yates, the government never filed another prosecution under the Smith Act.
During the McCarthy era, Doris was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and she also represented several HUAC witnesses. From 1956 to 1961, Doris successfully defended William and Sylvia Powell, who faced the death penalty, against Korean War sedition charges. The US government charged that articles Powell had written reporting and criticizing US biological weapons use in Korea were false and written with intent to hinder the war effort. When a mistrial ended the sedition case, the government charged the Powells with treason. Attorney General Robert Kennedy dismissed the case in 1961.
A partner with the NLG firm of Treuhaft & Walker in Oakland, California, from 1961 to 1977, Doris’s practice focused on civil rights, free speech and draft cases during the Vietnam War. She also defended death penalty cases. Perhaps best known for her defense of Angela Davis, Doris was part of a legal team that secured Angela’s acquittal on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. In that case, which Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree in 2005 called “clearly the trial of the 20th century, and one that exemplified the vast and diverse talents of the true Dream Team of the legal profession,” the defense pioneered the use of jury consultants.
Doris was elected president of the NLG in 1970 after a bruising battle during which one opponent labeled her “a man in a woman’s skirt.” She paved the way for the election of five women NLG presidents in the ensuing years.
Serving as vice president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers from 1970 to 1978, Doris supported the struggles of victims of US imperialism throughout the world and was instrumental in the development of international human rights law. In 1996, Doris served as one of eight international observers at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings led by Desmond Tutu.
In 2004, Doris submitted a resolution on behalf of the NLG Bay Area Chapter to the Conference of Delegates of the California Bar Association asking for an investigation of representations the Bush administration used to justify the war in Iraq for possible impeachment.
Noted writer Jessica Mitford and Doris were close friends for years; Jessica was married to Robert Truehaft, Doris’s law partner. When Doris invited Jessica to join the Communist Party, the latter replied, “We thought you’d never ask!” There is speculation that author J.K. Rowling, who cited Jessica as her main literary influence, named her Harry Potter house elf “Dobby” after seeing Dobby Walker’s name in Jessica’s books. On a recent visit to her home, Doris showed me the Dobby references in works by Jessica on her bookshelf.
Doris frequently called me with her concerns and opinions about the issues of the day and in the NLG. She remained intensely engaged in politics until the day she died.
Doris “Dobby” Walker inspired generations of progressive lawyers, law students and legal workers to struggle unrelentingly for justice and equality. She was a friend, comrade and role model to scores of people in and out of the NLG. We will never see the likes of her again.