Victor Rabinowitz, 96; lawyer defended Cuban government, liberal clients

From a Times Staff Writer

Victor Rabinowitz, a New York lawyer who successfully represented Fidel Castro’s government before the Supreme Court as well as a who’s who of liberal clients in the United States, has died. He was 96.

Rabinowitz died Nov. 16 at his New York City home, his longtime law partner Michael Krinsky told the Associated Press. No cause of death was reported.

Rabinowitz was a socialist who chose the law as a vehicle for his activism, and his career covered most of the major political causes of the 20th century.

He defended trade unionists in the 1940s, leftists in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, civil rights activists in the 1960s and Vietnam War resisters in the 1960s and ‘70s.


He helped found the second incarnation of the American Labor Party in the mid-1930s and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1947.

In 1964, Rabinowitz defended the Castro government, which nationalized U.S.-owned holdings after Washington banned sugar imports from Havana.

In defending Cuba’s position before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rabinowitz contended that the Act of State doctrine applied, meaning that U.S. courts could not question the decisions of other countries concerning their internal affairs.

“It was a watershed case about when American courts can look into another case beyond its own borders,” Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, told the Washington Post. It “was a remarkable victory, considering American hostility to Cuba.”

In a 1996 book, “Unrepentant Leftist: A Lawyer’s Memoir,” Rabinowitz said he had been a member of the American Communist Party from 1942 -- when the United States and the Soviet Union were wartime allies -- until the early 1960s because it seemed the best way to fight for social justice.

“Poets write poetry; painters paint; musicians play music; dancers dance; and political activists carry on political activity because it is their nature,” Rabinowitz wrote.

He was the last attorney for Alger Hiss, the American diplomat accused of spying for the Soviet Union and ultimately convicted of perjury in 1950 in one of the postwar era’s most famous espionage cases.

“My father always felt that he was very ably represented by Victor Rabinowitz,” said Hiss’ son, Tony.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Rabinowitz was raised in a socialist household. He graduated from the University of Michigan and its law school and was admitted to the New York bar in 1935.

He began his career at the firm of Louis Boudin, a labor lawyer involved in radical politics. Rabinowitz opened his own practice in 1944, and Boudin’s nephew, Leonard Boudin, joined him three years later. They worked together until Leonard Boudin’s death in 1989.

The firm’s other clients included such liberal activists as singer Paul Robeson, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Pentagon Papers figure Daniel Ellsberg and civil rights leader Julian Bond.

In one of his other major cases, Rabinowitz argued unsuccessfully before the high court that the provision of the Taft-Hartley Act ordering union officials to declare under oath that they were not communists was unconstitutional.

Rabinowitz later said he once represented 225 witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Committee, many of whom were average people caught up in the national purge of suspected communist sympathizers.

He eventually represented Leonard Boudin’s daughter Kathy, a member of the student radical group Weather Underground, who pleaded guilty to murder for her involvement in a 1981 armored truck heist. She served more than 20 years in prison.

In the 1960s, Rabinowitz successfully defended his own daughter Joni, a member of the radical Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, after she was convicted of perjury in federal court. Rabinowitz won her release by convincing the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the system for selecting federal grand juries in the South did not adequately represent the black population.

He is survived by two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; two children from his second marriage, which ended with the death of his wife in 2005; a sister; and two grandchildren.