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Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz Makes Career Out of Legal Chutzpah

July 31, 1989

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz argued with God as a boy studying the Talmud in Brooklyn. Ever since, he’s made a career out of challenging the powers that be.

Now, the defender of the civil rights of Soviet refuseniks and U.S. Nazis has been vindicated in his clash with a federal judge over a book about the Claus von Bulow case, in which he successfully defended the socialite accused of trying to kill his wife.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux barred Dershowitz from his courtroom because of the 1986 book, which castigated the Rhode Island judicial system, but the outspoken attorney fought back - and won.

Rhode Island Chief Justice Thomas F. Fay said Sunday he would not, at least for now, appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Dershowitz, as Lagueux had requested.

Dershowitz, who is campaigning to get Lagueux impeached, said the judge’s call for an investigation was retaliation for the private censure Lagueux received last December after Dershowitz filed disciplinary charges against him.

″I don’t have much respect for authority. I fought with the rabbis and with the teachers in college,″ Dershowitz, 50, said in a recent interview.

The tiff with Lagueux began with the publication of Dershowitz’ book ″Reversal of Fortune,″ about his part in the acquittal of von Bulow.

Mrs. von Bulow has been in a coma at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York for nine years. Von Bulow was convicted of attempted murder in his first trial in 1982, but that conviction was overturned and he was acquitted at retrial in 1985.

Four days out of five Dershowitz teaches. On the fifth, he practices law and generally makes a public fuss in defense of civil liberties.

″I see this as part of my mission,″ he said. ″That’s why I’m willing to degrade myself and go on the Mort Downey show.″

An untweedy 5-foot-9 in mustache, glasses and a willful head of wiry red hair, Dershowitz has appeared on talk shows hosted by Downey, Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, and on MacNeil-Lehrer, ″60 Minutes,″ and David Letterman. He writes a weekly column for 45 daily newspapers.

His staunch, orthodox defense of civil liberties has led him to take unpopular cases.

Among his clients were a Jewish Defense League bombmaker who killed a girl, U.S. Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and porn star Harry Reems of ″Deep Throat″ fame. He helped defend CIA whistleblower Frank Snepp, Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, Patricia Hearst, pro-PLO actress Vanessa Redgrave and spy Jonathan Pollard.

″I don’t need the Bill of Rights. I’m a wealthy, educated, powerful, tenured professor,″ Dershowitz said. ″I’m out there protecting people who need the Bill of Rights.″

A graduate of the Yale University Law School, Dershowitz joined the Harvard faculty in 1965 at age 25 and was given a full professorship at 28.

The cachet of Yale and Harvard aside, he has a knack for irritating some people, and his willingness to enter the public forum leads to questions about his motives.

Boston Magazine pounded Dershowitz last year in a biting profile that put him on trial for being a publicity hound.

″The guy is so obsessed with being a celebrity figure, that he’ll do and say anything to get notoriety. To me that doesn’t make for a good person, and it doesn’t make for a good lawyer,″ said Vincent Morgera, a lawyer in Providence, R.I.

Supporters of Dershowitz are just as passionate.

″In addition to having the mind of a steel trap, he has an incredible legal imagination and can figure a way out of any legal problem. He’s one of the premier legal strategists in the United States,″ said Harvey Silvergate, a criminal lawyer in Boston who was a student of Dershowitz and later a colleague on the Harvard faculty.

Silvergate added: ″The only person I know who is able to intimidate him is his mother.″

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