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Louis H. Pollak, Civil Rights Advocate and Federal Judge, Dies at 89

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Louis H. Pollak, a federal judge and former dean of two prestigious law schools who played a significant role in major civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, died on Tuesday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 89.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his wife, Katherine, said.

For 28 years, before President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judge Pollak had volunteered his services to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He did so even during his tenures as dean of the Yale and University of Pennsylvania law schools.

Recruited in 1950 by the defense fund’s director, Thurgood Marshall, who later became an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Pollak was a member of the legal team that spent several years preparing the plaintiff’s briefs for Brown v. Board of Education.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in that case, handed down in May 1954, stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and a violation of the 14th Amendment. The decision, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that permitted state-sponsored segregation, is considered a cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement.

It was one of many cases in which Mr. Pollak had a role, including several in which he argued before the Supreme Court.

“Lou Pollak wrote briefs, made arguments, gave advice hundreds and hundreds of times on issues of the highest level of constitutional sophistication,” Jack Greenberg, who succeeded Justice Marshall as director of the defense fund, wrote in his 1994 book, “Crusaders in the Courts.”

It was Mr. Pollak who argued, in the Supreme Court’s 1965 case Abernathy v. Alabama, that the convictions of Freedom Riders for their campaign to desegregate buses and bus stations in the South could not stand. Citing a prior case upholding the right of the Interstate Commerce Commission to mandate integrated public travel facilities, the Supreme Court, without writing a new opinion, reversed the convictions.

Mr. Greenberg wrote that Mr. Pollak had “masterfully argued the case, in conversational tones and with humor.”

A year earlier, with William T. Coleman, who later served as transportation secretary in the Ford administration, Mr. Pollak argued for the plaintiffs in McLaughlin v. Florida, a case in which the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Florida law banning cohabitation between people of different races. “The time has come to remove this stigma from the fabric of American law,” Mr. Pollak said at the time.

“That important victory,” said Debo Adegbile, who now leads the defense fund, “paved the way for the precedent-setting Loving v. Virginia victory in 1967, which declared that all anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional.”

Civil rights was a family calling for Judge Pollak. His father was a defense lawyer for the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black youths who had been falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931.

Born in Manhattan on Dec. 7, 1922, Louis Heilprin Pollak was one of three children of Walter and Marion Pollak. He graduated from Harvard and, after serving in the Army, received his law degree from Yale, where he was the editor of the Law Review. He was a clerk for Justice Wiley B. Rutledge of the Supreme Court in 1948 and 1949, then joined a prominent law firm in New York. It was there that he started working for the legal defense fund.

Mr. Pollak joined the Yale Law School faculty in 1955 and a decade later was named dean, a post he held until 1970.

Appointed to the law faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, Mr. Pollak was named dean in 1975. Three years later, President Carter appointed him to the federal court in Philadelphia.

In the hundreds of trials that he presided over in his 36 years on the bench (he had been a senior judge in semiretirement since 1992), Judge Pollak was known for advocating defendants’ rights — sometimes stoking controversy in the process.

In January 2002 in a murder case, he ruled that fingerprint experts could point out the similarities between prints from the crime scene to those of a defendant, but could not “present ‘evaluation’ testimony as to their ‘opinion’ that a particular latent print is in fact the print of a particular person.”

His initial decision delighted defense lawyers and alarmed law enforcement officials. Two months later, after three days of testimony at a special hearing, Judge Pollak reversed himself. Still, he expressed deep concern that “there have been at least a few instances in which fingerprint examiners, here and abroad, have made identifications that turned out to be erroneous.”

Besides his wife, Judge Pollak is survived by five daughters, Sally, Susan, Nancy, Libby and Debby; and seven grandchildren.

For Judge Pollak, his signature accomplishment was participating in Brown v. Board of Education.

“The decision in the Brown case, even though it was a decision about schools,” he said in an interview on NPR in 2004, “became a precedent for, in the next half-dozen years, a series of Supreme Court decisions where they didn’t even have to write opinions, where they knocked out segregation in buses, in parks, in swimming pools and the whole array of public institutions that had been blanketed with Jim Crow for half a century.”