Rob Doyle – posted 7/6/2014
My friend Rob Doyle died on May 1. I have to say Rob’s death was utterly shocking to me. I had a hard time believing it could have happened. Rob was a vital presence. Rob lived to 72 but he was not a person who ever seemed old at all.
The last time I saw Rob was in the summer of 2010 before I moved to Alaska. Rob came to a going away party my wife Debra had organized at my home in Wilmot NH. I was actually surprised he came because it was at least a two hour drive each way. I had not seen Rob for a long time before that. Rob stayed late and it was great to see him again. He gave me the names of some of his old Alaska friends. He had worked in Alaska Legal Services early in his legal career.
I first met Rob in 1981 when we were in a childbirth class together before the birth of his son Jason and my son Josh. Rob and Diane and my ex-wife Carol and I all lived in Dorchester, near Fields Corner. We used to hang out a lot together.
That is when I first learned about Rob’s legal career. At the time, I only dimly glimpsed what an unusual and extraordinary lawyer Rob was. I knew he had been involved with defense of American Indian Movement (AIM) activists at Wounded Knee. I also knew he was a Movement lawyer with an office in Boston.
Rob was a founding member of the Boston National Lawyers Guild (NLG) chapter and a member of the Law Commune, an alternative law firm of the late 60’s, early 70’s. The Massachusetts NLG website described the Law Commune this way:
“The law commune, as the term suggests, practiced law in a new way, serving activists, representing antiwar demonstrators and involving themselves directly in anti-war and community work as participants in the front lines. They also rejected all hierarchy – including distinctions between lawyers and non-lawyers – and functioned like many of the groups they served as egalitarian collectives, making decisions cooperatively and unanimously (often through marathon meetings replete with “criticism and self-criticism”). It was widely corroborated that the men took up knitting and would knit at the meetings. The lawyers took turns answering the phones, and they eschewed all the paraphernalia of private privilege, including individual offices. They couldn’t afford phones with buttons that lit up to indicate which line a call was going to, so whenever the phone would ring, they never knew who it would be for. Even desks lacked separate drawers for separate people; they were slabs of plywood with files on top.”
The NLG history of the early years also quotes a story about Rob:
“The Guild lawyers supported themselves (barely) with appointed criminal cases, contributions from clients, and by driving cabs and waiting tables. Rob Doyle reported that a client came to eat at a restaurant where he was a dishwasher – they had a good laugh. The joke was that the Guild attorneys would ask new clients,”How much should we pay you to represent you?”.
When i was in my first year in law school in 1982, Rob came to Concord NH to defend a Black revolutionary Christopher King. King had been stopped and arrested at a rest area in Attleboro Ma when he was in a car with Jaan Laaman, a white prison radical. There were illegal guns in the car and a shoot-out eventually ensued between Laaman and the police. The reason the police pursued the search was because there was a Black guy and a white guy in the same car at 2am. That was the only basis for the stop. There is much that could be said about the case but suffice it to say the case went on for years.
Rob stayed at my apartment while he tried the case which had been removed to federal court in Concord NH. The case was before Judge Martin Loughlin, a very humane, down-to-earth judge.
I decided to blow off law school classes one day to watch the trial. I remember entering the back of the courtroom. I got there early. There were a group of women on one side. They asked: “Who are you?” I explained my relationship to Rob. They said, “Come over here and sit with us. We’re witches and we are casting spells on the prosecutor”. Not wanting to take any chances, I did move to their side, promptly.
I remember Judge Loughlin calling Rob “Bobby”. I wasn’t sure if it was an Irish thing but it seemed like the judge really liked Rob.
The King case had a complicated history with both federal and state charges. Because of police misconduct and wiretapping of attorney-client conversations, the case was remanded back to the federal court in NH by the First Circuit. The case came back the next year. Rob became a witness in the case and Bill Kunstler was brought in as counsel. Rob again stayed at my place.
I took some time off from law school classes again to watch. I saw Bill Kunstler cross-examine an FBI agent. This time Judge Loughlin called Bill Kunstler “Billy”. Kunstler very generously took Rob, me and my friend Steve Cherry out to lunch at the old Thursday’s restaurant in downtown Concord. It was a memorable moment for both me and Steve. Kunstler was a legend already having represented the Chicago 7, H. Rap Brown, the Attica Brothers and so many other famous defendants. It was a heady experience and Rob had made it possible.
Kunstler was very entertaining and a bit of a showboat. I remember him flashing a large wad of hundred dollar bills. (He paid for lunch) I don’t remember much of the conversation but I do remember Bill told us that the secret to a long life was to have sex everyday. Always good to get important advice from senior attorneys!
If anyone is interested in the King case, there are two Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opinions. The first Commonwealth v. Christopher King case is at 389 Mass 233 (1983). The later opinion is at 400 Mass 283 (1987). I am not clear on the whole procedural history since there was a federal dimension to the case as well. I did not know how much heat Rob had taken for his role in the case. At the memorial event recently held for Rob, it was mentioned that the feds put tremendous pressure on him, his law partner Ed Berkan and his firm.
Rob embodied some very unusual qualities for a lawyer: a genuine passion for social justice, modesty, cool competence and humility. While he was an excellent and skilled trial attorney, he was almost self-effacing about it. He was very matter-of-fact and egalitarian. He was quite a non-judgmental mentor as well. He was easy to talk to.
Rob always had interesting cases going on. Along with criminal defense, he represented tenants facing eviction, injured workers, and people victimized by lead paint and other toxins. Rob laid it all on the line. He put heart and soul into his practice. I would mention that there is a lovely video tribute to Rob on the Massachusetts NLG website (www.nlgmass.org) by Rob’s law partner Carol Steinberg. You can track it down on the the Mass Dissent Online section of the site.
I always thought of Rob as something of a Renaissance Man. He sailed, skied, was a good builder, and he was also technologically savvy. I remember some of his creative building projects from his old house in Dorchester. I did not know how he learned to do so many things so well. I always remember Prairie Home Companion on in the background at his house.
I regret that I never reconnected with Rob after being in Alaska. We talked about meeting in Lawrence as Rob said he had some work there. I always assumed there would be more time and in that I was wrong. I guess there is some kind of lesson there about not waiting on things in life. What is good and vital can be wrenched away in a heatbeat.
I miss Rob and his presence on the planet. It is like the forces of justice in the universe shrank with his passing.