David Kairys was honored, along with an activist convicted of murder.
Professor David Kairys received the 2011 Law for the People Award on Saturday Oct. 15 at the National Lawyers Guild convention in Philadelphia.
The 74th Law for the People Convention lasted four days, at which law students and professionals attended lectures and workshops on multiple civil-law issues.
Kairys accepted his award during the convention banquet Saturday night, where he was honored for more than 40 years of civil rights litigation.
“It’s great to have your work recognized, particularly by your peers,” Kairys said. “That’s the part that was very gratifying for me.”
As a first-year law student at Columbia University, Kairys spent the summer of 1965 in Baltimore working alongside NLG members and the Congress of Racial Equality. His rapport with the guild soon flourished, opening avenues for Kairys and his partner, David Rudovsky, as they came to Philadelphia in 1971 and started their law firm, Kairys and Rudovsky.
“The guild was the network and community that linked us all together,” Kairys said. “It was really important to the success of our firm and to the success of our work around the country.”
Rudovsky accepted the Law for the People Award with Kairys.
Also awarded at the convention was Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia writer and journalist accused of killing police officer Daniel Faulkner in December 1981.
Kairys said Abu-Jamal was recognized for his activism against the death penalty.
“The Lawyers Guild regularly supports jailhouse lawyers and helps them,” Kairys said. “It’s just a tradition, and I took it as in that tradition.”
This tradition of defending civil rights and the lawyers who fight for them has remained vibrant since it’s founding in 1937—a time when African Americans were not allowed membership into the American Bar Association, Kairys said.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a written endorsement to the NLG founding convention, Kairys said, bolstering its drive to make social change. The NLG was the first to send law students and lawyers to the South during the 1960s movements, Kairys said.
Kairys shared that same tenacity for civil justice as a rookie lawyer, later winning what the NLG called, “the most significant acquittal of anti-Vietnam War activists,” the Camden 28 case.
The Camden 28 case involved anti-war activists who raided a draft board office in Camden, N.J. Albeit FBI director J. Edgar Hoover later announced the Camden 28 had been caught in the act of removing and destroying government files. Kairys said that Hoover set them up.
“The FBI had an informer in the group and paid for all the important tools and strategies,” Kairys said. “The FBI even paid for a bag of groceries the informer brought the group every week—basically he kept them fed. So the FBI wanted this to happen, and then they stormed in in the middle of the night while the Camden 28 were in the draft board destroying the files and arrested them.”
The trial lasted four months, Kairys said, where the defendants gave testimony through lawyers and their own words. All of the Camden 28 were acquitted.
Yet, with all the legal notches on his belt, Kairys feels most of his worth comes from simpler things. He said his “chit chats” with others was the best part of the convention, compared to his speech, which “wasn’t that big a deal.”
Even in his first case–in which he successfully campaigned the governor of Pennsylvania to throw out the extradition warrant of his client, who allegedly murdered a police officer in Georgia 25 years prior, with only two weeks of experience as a public defender–Kairys said his biggest fulfillment was not his victory, but the gratitude of his defendant’s widow.
“His wife, who I got very close to, invited me to her church in North Philadelphia and dedicated a gospel song to me,” Kairys said. “I can’t imagine getting a better honor than that, including the one I just got.”
Payne Schroeder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.