A Chicago Legal Legend
Born in Chicago in 1906, Elmer Gertz enjoyed a law career that spanned over seven decades. Growing up in the big city, a "famous son" of Maxwell Street, Gertz dealt with nearly every aspect of his profession including corporate cases and murders, the most notable being Jack Ruby and Nathan Leopold. He is best known for his long career as a defender of civil liberties.
Gertz was born in the area of Roosevelt Road and Blue Island on the city's west side. Of Lithuanian heritage, his parents, Morris and Grace, settled in the area that was at the time the center of Jewish and immigrant culture in the city. He later became a champion for the preservation of the area.
After his mother died when he was ten, Gertz and a younger brother were shipped off to an orphanage in Cleveland. After returning to Chicago in 1920, he attended Crane Technical High School. Acquaintances at that time included Meyer Levin (who later opposed Gertz in a famous court case), Leo Rosten, and Leo Lerner (founder of the Lerner newspaper chain). He went on to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate and then attended law school there. At the university he was exposed to various races and ethnic groups and career aspirations. Often, he and fellow students met in private homes to discuss brotherhood and civil rights because it was not possible for all of his colleagues to dine in designated "white" restaurants.
His years at the University of Chicago Law School helped shape the philosophy that ultimately led to his preference for taking up unpopular cases and protecting the underdog. After graduating, one of his first jobs was with the law firm of Jacob Arvey, where he worked for fourteen years. In the 1940s he became active in the fair-housing movement and in championing the admission of blacks into the local bar association.
In the late 1950s Gertz became a national figure when he won parole (arguing against his old friend Meyer Levin) for Nathan Leopold, a University of Chicago law student convicted with fellow student Richard Loeb in the 1924 slaying of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. Leopold was successfully released from prison after having served thirty-four years for his part in the murder. Leopold and Loeb had originally been defended by Gertz's hero, Clarence Darrow, whose twelve-hour plea for the lives of the teenagers from two prominent Chicago families brought tears to the eyes of the presiding judge. At the time, the case was called "the trial of the century." Upon Leopold's release, Gertz walked with him through the gates of Stateville prison in 1958.
Another highly publicized case included his defense against obscenity charges and the censorship of Tropic of Cancer by author Henry Miller. The novel was first published in France during the 1930s and was banned in the United States for more than twenty years. Gertz successfully defended the publication in Illinois. After the ban was lifted, Gertz and Miller became close friends. Gertz was even called upon from time to time to give interviews regarding Miller.
Gertz continued to fight for fair housing and civil rights, serving on several committees between 1946 and 1949, including the Chicago Commission
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of Human Relations, the Chicago Committee on Housing Action, the Mayor's Housing Commission, and the Illinois Committee for Equal Job Opportunity.
He helped draft what has been called the strongest bill of rights of any state constitution in the country while serving as chairman of the Illinois Bill of Rights Committee of the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1969-1970. Between 1978 and 1980, Gertz chaired the civil rights committees of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Association, and in 1978-1979 served as president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association.
Another famous case was Gertz's argument against the death penalty for Jack Ruby, the man convicted of killing Lee Harvey Oswald, who was on trial for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ruby's death sentence was overturned, and he died in prison of natural causes in 1967.
From 1970 until his death, he taught civil rights courses at the John Marshall Law School. He was so well regarded by his students that they threw a surprise party to help him celebrate his ninety-third birthday.
Gertz was also a prolific author. Some of his works are Charter for a New Age: An Inside View of the Constitutional Convention; Henry Miller: Years of Trial and Triumph 1962-1964; The Correspondence of Henry Miller; and Elmer Gertz Moment of Madness: The People vs: Jack Ruby, which dealt with his success in overturning Ruby's death sentence.
Gertz served as an officer of the Society of Midland Authors and the Illinois Freedom to Read Committee. He was also a national trustee of the City of Hope, for which he received the Golden Key Award in 1966. Other honors he received include the State of Israel Prime Minister's Medal in 1972 (which he considered his greatest accomplishment), and Educator of the Year in 1975.
A long-time resident of Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, Gertz died of pneumonia in May 2000. A posthumous award of the Illinois State Bar Association Medal of Merit was bestowed on him on May 19, 2000, by the bar association's Board of Governors. The state bar association's highest honor for a practicing attorney, it is given only in extraordinary circumstances for undeniable exemplary accomplishments.—[From Elmer Gertz, To Life; Stephen Anderson, Elmer Gertz Awarded Medal of Merit; "Elmer Gertz, famed defense lawyer, dies at 93," The Detroit News; "Elmer Gertz 93, civil rights attorney dies," The University of Chicago Law School Chicagobits, May 15, 2000; Elmer Gertz and Joseph Pisciotte, Charter for a New Age; Elmer Gertz, For the First Hours of Tomorrow; Gerard C. Heldrich, The Painting of Elmer; "John Marshall Students Help Famed Professor Gertz Mark His 93rd Year," Happenings During the 1999-2000 Academic Year; Steve Balkin, Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, "Attorney Elmer Gertz Dies, a Famous Son of Maxwell St." (Ap. 28, 2000); Martha Neil, "Legal Legend Elmer Gertz Dies at 93," Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, (Ap. 27, 2000); "Notebook/Milestones," Time Magazine, (May 8, 2000); Scott Simon, "Music Cues: Scott's Thoughts about the Millennial March for Gay and Lesbian Rights," National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday, (Ap. 8, 2000); "Chicago's Top 100 Jews, Past and Present," Chicago Jewish News, <http://www.chijewishnews.com/lists.jsp>; Elmer Gertz, Save Maxwell Street, <http://openair.org/maxwell/pgertz.html>; Douglas Linder, Famous Trials, <http://www.jurist.law.pitt.edu/trials5.htm>.]
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