Bruce J. Ennis; ACLU Lawyer Argued Supreme Court Cases


Bruce J. Ennis, a 1st Amendment expert and national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union who was one of a handful of lawyers to regularly argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, died Saturday at a hospital in Boston.

Ennis was 60 and died of complications of leukemia, according to his Washington law firm, Jenner & Block.

Ennis belonged to an elite group of about two dozen lawyers who specialized as Supreme Court advocates. He was involved in more than 250 cases before the nation’s highest court and personally argued 13 of them.

Born in Knoxville, Tenn., he studied at Dartmouth College and Chicago Law School before clerking for a federal judge and joining a Wall Street law firm. In 1969, he joined the New York Civil Liberties Union as a staff attorney. By 1977 he was the ACLU’s national legal director, a post he held until he returned to private practice in 1981.


In 1994, the National Law Journal named him one of the nation’s 100 most influential lawyers.

He spent several years directing the Mental Health Law Project, which broke legal ground arguing for the rights of mental patients. That was the issue that resulted in his first appearance before the Supreme Court in 1971, when he was the lead attorney on a long-running New York case that exposed substandard treatment of the mentally retarded in a Staten Island institution. The court ruled unanimously in 1975 that nonviolent patients have important rights, including the freedom to sue state officials for damages if they are deprived of liberty.

A few years ago Ennis recalled in a Washington Post interview how nervous he was in his first Supreme Court date. “I literally couldn’t hold down solid food for 10 days before I got my argument,” he said.

In the following years, he perfected a routine of intensive preparation that included compiling a carefully typed briefing book. It served mainly as a security blanket because Ennis rarely consulted it once he stood before the black-robed justices. He also subjected himself to grueling interrogation by nine colleagues in his firm’s mock courtroom.

Among his victories was a case argued on behalf of the American Library Assn. against the Communications Decency Act, a law that made libraries vulnerable to criminal prosecution for providing “indecent” material to minors via the Internet.

He won another major victory in a case involving Federal Communications Commission rulings that forced cable companies to carry local broadcasters.

A director of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, he also wrote widely and was the author of a 1973 book, “Mental Patients, Psychiatrists and the Law.”

He is survived by his wife, Emily; sons Alexander and Bradley, of Washington; his mother, Jane Burgin, of Kansas City, Mo.; and a sister, Elizabeth Ennis-Thomas, of Corte Madera, Calif.